Whether you’re plotting a murder or on a mission of mercy, it’s best to serve tea first. It warms the relationship, soothes the soul and civilizes the deal. But in Lee Blessing’s extraordinary play “Going to St. Ives,” it also means so much more.
Blessing’s plays often deal with the exploration of moral, ethical and social dilemmas in an intimate context. But his characters and story here are richer and deeper than his usual intriguing reflections. In taking the personal and giving it a global reach, he presents a work that is haunting, healing and soul-stirring.
The play makes its Gotham bow at Primary Stages after its world preem at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater in 1997 and other regional productions since (including L.A. and La Jolla, Calif.). The two-hander no doubt will be a welcome addition to the repertoire of Blessing’s socially significant and dramatically juicy work, his best since “A Walk in the Woods.”
The play begins and ends over tea between two women in each other’s home. Cora (Vivienne Benesch) is a renowned physician, living in a cocoon of English safety in her tastefully spare home. May (L. Scott Caldwell), who has come to England for an operation on her eyes, is the mother of a brutal African dictator.
The doctor, who will operate on May the next day, asks a personal favor: Persuade her son to release four imprisoned physicians. But the regal mother has a request of her own: She asks the doctor to supply her with a poison so she can kill her murderous offspring and stop the slaughter, torture and terror in her country.
What makes the play more than an ethical what-if situation is the complexity of the characters and the actors playing them.
The doctor feels responsible for the death of her 7-year-old son, accidentally shot by a stray bullet when the family car veered into a dangerous neighborhood. Since that loss she has led her life on a ledge, clinging to the importance of her profession and her haven of a home in St. Ives. A passionate proponent of life, she is at first shocked by her patient’s request, then torn by the conflicts between her fundamental beliefs and the knowledge that the elimination of evil would, in the end, save lives.
But the doctor’s sense of a higher purpose is challenged by her patient, who evokes Britain’s imperialistic past and passive present. “Nothing was explored — nothing existed — until you explored it,” May says of the British. “Nothing was a country until you drew the border. Now it’s morality. Nothing is moral until you approve.”
Further provoked by her patient, the doctor goes on a gradual journey from “the nursery rhyme in which you live,” as May calls it, into a crueler, complicated and often uncivilized world beyond porcelain tea cups, beige living-room walls and English gardens. But it’s also a journey for May, the mother who can still see in her son the gentle and beautiful child he was before turning monstrous, shaped by a society driven by men.
The second act, which takes place in Africa, finds the two women in much different, desperate circumstances, their lives irretrievably changed as they continue to grapple with the choices they have made and the consequences of their actions.
In three scenes, Benesch convincingly details the evolution of the doctor from concerned physician and guilt-ridden mother to advocate, accomplice, conspirator, savior and finally to self-awareness. Caldwell masterfully plays her character as a proud and formidable woman resolved in her destiny and duty while still a grieving mother.
Blessing’s dialogue snaps with smartness, tension and even humor. “Why do men build empires if not to show their mothers,” says a wry May, reducing a millennium’s worth of wars and ravagement to the simple need for maternal approval. “Without the threat of mercy, cruelty loses its keenest edge,” she later says, cynically answering why her sadistic son would entertain the notion of clemency.
Blessing tends to pile on his metaphors, symbols and ironies (double meanings of sight, riddles and porcelain patterns are applied too thickly at times). Still, the essence and depth of the drama is constant under Maria Mileaf’s direction, delicately guiding the shifts of power and persuasion.
Designer Neil Patel’s twin settings each have a sense of telling identity and similarity. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are equally revealing in their small details of prim Englishwoman and Mother Africa.
In the end, both of the play’s characters find a bond in their parallel pain, a peace in their sense of duty and a meaningful connection to the world as a whole while still sitting in a garden sipping tea.