“Going to St. Ives”
Detroit Repertory Theater
January 12 – March 19, 2006
Review by Christina Hill
Detroit Repertory Theater consistently presents informative and challenging work to engage its urban audience, especially on racial issues. Their current production, “Going to St. Ives” by Lee Blessing, is no exception. Blessing’s play is a tension-filled pas de deux for female actors – one black and African, one white and English -- that mines the strong polarities between the two to advance a plot rich in significant twists and difficult moral decision-making. The audience first reels in reaction to outrageous stereotypical statements the women fling at each other and then from the surprising closeness of their criminal collaboration.
The action takes the women from the home of Dr. Cora Gage in St. Ives, a bucolic enclave near Cambridge and “the ground zero of personal security,” to a violent and lawless empire in Africa where May N’Kame’s son rules as a repressive dictator. In a play laden (perhaps too heavily) with simplistic symbolic devises illustrating the women’s cultural identities, the contrast in environments is just one. Set designer, Harry Wetzel, has done a fabulous job with this premise in depicting the nuances of the two locales. He situates us firmly in the women’s personal spaces.
The mysterious nature of the evolving relationship between two women of such different backgrounds propels this drama and leads to a conclusion which mustn’t be specified here. Some brief background is that May arrives in England to have Cora perform delicate eye surgery. She is in no way, however, deferential to the white doctor who holds her eyesight in her hands. The mother of a ruler, May is haughty, smug and overbearing. Her vividly colorful African attire and impressive gold jewelry contrasts sharply with the doctor’s bland beige-and-brown frumpiness, thanks to the creative insights of costume designer, Judy Dery.
The relationship does not begin auspiciously. May insults Cora, calling her a “British racist.” In response to May’s arrogance, Cora retorts that her son’s empire is “hardly impressive.” About Africa, she asks: “why should I even care?” Cora is sympathetic toward black doctors jailed there for refusing to cooperate in torture, and also of the irony of May being sent by her son to England -- whose imperialist history is implicit in the contemporary problems of post-colonial Africa -- for surgery.
But are the women destined to remain at odds, victims of the incipient racism with which they regard the other? The play’s dialogue and action ricochets between such dichotomies, but never settles for the obvious. The play’s title, after all, is taken from a well-known riddle which, in closing, asks: “How many people were going to St. Ives?”
“Going to St. Ives” depends on a single relationship between two actors, and because of the rapidity of the plot turns, the women – Charity Clark as May and Leah Smith as Cora – must give spot-on performances. It is possible that over the length of the run both will be able to slow it down a bit. A measured pace seems a requirement for optimal believability in a drama quite short on that substance as it was written. But Smith, in particular, is too strident, too manic, simply too fast on the draw. Goaded in the first act by May to reveal a personal tragedy, Smith’s Cora jumps too quickly into the telling of the story, it would be better played more slowly and contemplatively. Clark’s Cora, too, seems too arrogant by half in act one, but recovers splendidly in the second act when her circumstances have changed diametrically.
The play’s director, Rep veteran Barbara Busby, has productively mined all the comedy in these roles -- and it is urgently needed to leaven the heaviness of this drama – but she didn’t get a firm enough rein on the actors’ energy. They are a bit like runaway thoroughbreds. Some tinkering with the pace would be worthwhile, but the Rep’s “Going to St. Ives” nonetheless provides an evening as entertaining as it is demanding philosophically. – Christina Hill
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