There's a funny, engrossing, and topical play currently being presented by Primary Stages at the 59E59 Theaters. Unfortunately, it's only the first act of Lee Blessing's latest endeavor, Going to St. Ives. After intermission, the play gets hopelessly lost on its journey, but until then, it's quite a memorable trip.
Granted, much of the first act might seem especially powerful in light of current events. In recent weeks, it's been impossible to ignore the media coverage of Terri Schiavo, whose husband and parents have been locked in a lengthy battle to determine whether she'll live or die. The situation is, at its most basic, about the boundaries and responsibilities of love, and how one draws the line between helping oneself and helping others.
Blessing covers similar emotional territory here. His characters are both women, both mothers, and both devoted to life in their own ways: Cora Gage (Vivienne Benesch) is a doctor in St. Ives ("ground zero of personal security") who's agreed to perform laser surgery on the visiting African May N'Kame (L. Scott Caldwell) to treat her acute closed-angle glaucoma. The catch: May is the mother of a ruthless African dictator.
Can May trust Cora with her eyesight? That's the first question driving their pre-surgery consultation; May is afraid that Cora, still smarting from the shooting death of her son by a black child in a poor section of Los Angeles two years earlier, will enact revenge on her. But deeper issues must also be addressed: Cora wants May to free four doctors imprisoned in May's country, so that they may continue their crusade of healing. May asks in return that Cora procure a poison that will allow May to kill her son and finally end his tyranny.
Defying all odds, and the significant number of times this idea has previously been explored, Blessing deftly crafts an hour of fine drama from Cora's choice. If certain lines take on an unnecessarily clichéd tone ("Nothing is moral unless you approve?", "I am the one who can kill the monster in your heart"), Blessing works in far more laughs than you might expect, and the overall effect is a serenely powerful and theatrical one. So convincingly does Blessing lay out his scenario that Cora's ultimate decision, which won't be revealed here, elicited gasps from the audience at the performance I attended.
But the second act, set in May's palace, dampens the first act's impact with its thoroughly conventional and democratic treatment of the consequences of Cora's actions. Everything fresh in the first act here seems unduly stale and irredeemably familiar: Maria Mileaf's direction, which so specifically defines the spoken and unspoken tensions between the women in the first act, becomes meandering and unfocused; Neil Patel's set, which undergoes a lengthy intermission transformation, even seems to parody African royalty, while his first act rendition of Cora's cozy sitting room is notable for its realistic simplicity.
The actresses themselves, also embracing understatement, give fine performances overall. Benesch's coolly agitated, businesslike manner plays well off of Caldwell's tempered passion, and even in the script's weaker moments, there's always a real chemistry and connection between them. The differences in their personalities are beautifully represented by Ann Hould-Ward's costumes: Benesch is clad entirely in earth tones, Caldwell in flamboyant red, oranges, and eventually purple and gold.
But Blessing overplays his hand and disrupts the fine work done in the rest of the production. It's too difficult to look past the second act's banalities to get back into the story of the two women; the story is more interesting when the women's interactions are laden with guilt that's subtextual rather than stated directly. The first act seems so complete a story in itself that when a colleague asked me at intermission why the play even had a second act, I had no answer to give him.
It should be mentioned that the show's title derives from a familiar riddle that begins "As I was going to St. Ives / I met a man with seven wives." The riddle and its deceptively simple solution are quoted in the play, to serve as a reminder to always keep your final goal in sight without getting sidetracked by unimportant information. It's a lesson Blessing would have done well to heed in writing Going to St. Ives.