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A CurtainUp Review

Going to St. Ives

As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

 Vivienne Benesch and  L. Scott Caldwell
Vivienne Benesch and L. Scott Caldwell
(Photo: James Leynse)
Some artists are settlers. Whether painters or playwrights, once they find a style to which the public responds, they settle in and work within that comfort zone. Other artists are lifelong explorers, not content to keep mining familiar territory to insure success. Lee Blessing falls into this latter category. While you might say he's stuck to a writing formula in the sense of using a small canvas for stories that revolve around big ideas, he keeps trying out new styles and taking on previously unexamined themes. Consequently, audiences and critics are likely to be all over the map in their response to his plays.

The Blessing play that has garnered the most unanimous praises was of course his 1988 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated A Walk in the Woods. My own favorite is probably the experimentally structured, gay-themed Thief River.

Now, after last year's not very favorably received Whores (at the New Jersey Repertory Company), Blessing is back in New York with a piece that is basically a two-person debate, shades of Walk in the Woods. The global problems revolve around the violence that has been the bitter harvest of many parts of post-colonial Africa.

In Going to St. Ives, the characters are two strong-willed women, a British eye surgeon, Dr. Cora Cage (Vivienne Benesch), and May N'Kame (L. Scott Caldwell), the imperious mother of an African dictator reminiscent of Idi Amin who has made himself an emperor and her an empress. Their talks don't take place during a walk in the woods, but over that most civilized symbols of polite social intercourse -- a cup of tea, poured first in a simple but elegantly furnished home in St. Ives, outside of Cambridge, and in the second act in the garden of an unnamed country in central Africa.

The first tea party is prompted by the African woman's urgent need for an operation to save her sight. The medical emergency is, of course, just an excuse to allow more far-reaching ideas to gain altitude within the play's intimate framework.

The doctor has invited the African Empress to her home, ostensibly to make her feel more relaxed about the impending surgery. May, is hostile and suspicious, well aware that she is putting her most precious possession, her sight, into the hands of a woman who no doubt shares her countrymen's disdain for the mother of a man they regard a monster. Cora, does indeed have another motive for asking May to tea. She wants her to use her influence to save some African doctors from being put to death for their unwillingness to keep prisoners alive to endure horrendous torture. Her plea for intervention prompts May to propose a Faustian quid pro quo. The fact that both women are weighed down by guilt pertaining to their sons (Cora feels responsible for her young son's accidental death enroute to a Los Angeles sporting event; May sees herself as the vessel of bad seed) threatens to turn this into a soapy melodrama.

Experienced playwright that he is, Mr. Blessing manages to establish his premise with an at once entertaining and provocative first act. Though there are just two actors on stage, there's plenty of dramatic tension. The sharp and frequently funny dialogue crackles with timely quandaries. Everything builds towards that initial tea party's tense brinksmanship clash between responsibility for many and the Hippocratic oath. Fortunately Maria Mileaf has also enlisted two excellent actresses and directed them to make the most of that dynamic first act and prevent the less credible second from collapsing under the weight of its too drawn out predictability.

In her brilliantly colored African garb, L. Scott Caldwell enters Dr. Gage's living room the very embodiment of the word regal. With her hair in an unflattering but neat arrangement, and her plain but well-tailored suit, Vivienne Benesch is the sparrow to Caldwell's bird of paradise. Caldwell's May also gets Blessing's best lines. However, though her part, like her costume, is more flashy, Benesch more than holds her own. Just watching the verbal sparring makes you realize how much is lost in all those solo shows that don't allow the strong connection forged by these performers.

I'm not spoiling any surprises when I tell you that all the first act talk about the classic Willow Pattern china Cora inherited from her grandmother is a careful plant for her second act revelation that shards of this old china were mixed with mortar in her garden -- Blessing's way of making a symbolic point about the need to aid and bolster what has been abandoned.

While Neil Patel expertly shifts the scene from England to Africa and Ms. Benesh literally and figuratively let's her hair down in the second act, this African encounter is disappointing. Except for a heartwrenching monologue, powerfully delivered by May, it moves at a much more lethargic pace with the plot contrivances more obvious. As the return to the Willow Pattern china is easily anticipated so is the title's connection to the schoolroom rhyming puzzle quoted at the top of this review. The answer to the question of how many of a much married man's wives would be going to St. Ives which is, of course, "one"! -- it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to connect this to the inevitable final fork in these women's (and the world's) moral journey.

Despite its manufactured plot, Going to St. Ives takes a very realistic view of the possibility for less turmoil in emerging nations. And while it is a play of ideas, with Ms. Caldwell and Ms. Benesh to preside over the tea table, it's very much the actors' show.

Black Sheep
Down the Road
Motel Blues
Thief River Whores
Going to St. Ives (LA production)..

Written by Lee Blessing
Directed by Maria Mileaf
Cast: Vivienne Benesch and L. Scott Caldwell.
Set Design: Neil Patel,
Costume Design: Anne Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: David Lander
Original Music: by Michael Roth
Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.
Primary Stages, 59E59, (59th Street between Madison and Park Avenue), 212-840-9705
From 3/15/05 to 4/24/05; opening 3/29/05.
Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday matinees at 2pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm.
Tickets: $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 25th press performance
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