Drunk on the influence of the two-dimensional media, our theater has grown so overwrought and overindulgent that a little quiet dignity, accompanied by genuine moral gravity, comes as a genuine shock. In that context, the most shocking play of the year is probably Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives, a quiet little event in which two women, one white and one black, talk to each other for two hours, and while nothing “happens” onstage, what occurs on the faces of the two actresses is devastating enough to leave reverberations behind for months.
The two women are an eminent British eye surgeon, Dr. Cora Gage (Vivienne Benesch), and her most eminent patient, May N’kame (L. Scott Caldwell), the English-born mother of a Central African “emperor.” Think Idi Amin, think Mugabe. Think genocide. And then think what it is to be the mother of someone in absolute power, whose zest for hunting down and torturing “traitors” makes most of the world regard him as a monster.
May wants to be operated on for closed-angle glaucoma, a tricky condition that requires careful handling. Cora wants some- thing in return: the release from prison of four of the “empire” ‘s few doctors, condemned as traitors for refusing to assist at torture sessions. But while they negotiate this issue, in cautious, barbed discussion, another request emerges. May wants something from Cora that would be an extreme breach of ethics, that could involve a doctor in an act of homicide, an act that is at once humanitarian and tragically, frighteningly inhumane.
I’m purposely being elliptical, not because knowing the idea itself would spoil the play’s effectiveness, but because no cursory discussion of it could do justice to the careful, compassionate way in which Blessing lays out both the various moral resonances of the act and the human effect that contemplating it has on the two women. The act is carried out; in the play’s two halves, set in England and Africa respectively, the women weigh its results, first beforehand and then in retrospect, from their differing viewpoints, each of them suffering from, and accepting, differently tragic consequences. A world full of lives is changed while they sit quietly in the eye of the hurricane, and—because Blessing oversimplifies nothing—we are never allowed to think glibly that the change was for the better.
Instead we’re made to contemplate history: what the West has made of the third world, what the third world makes of itself, what we as individuals make of the defining events that shape or shadow our lives. The sharp, astute language—the talk of two intelligent women searching for ways to be friends while bonded by matters that poison friendship—keeps stabbing at the situation from one angle and then another, trying to find a humane way out of a history that is an inextricable, tragic trap. The play’s constant, quietly escalating tension is based not on plot but on questions of moral choice: As in Greek tragedy, the interest lies not in the story but in how the characters elect to deal with it, and in how they justify their choices to each other and to themselves.
At the same time, Blessing is a crafty showman, knowing when to relieve the situation with laughs, when to tighten it with a sudden shift of perception. And he conducts his showman’s game honorably, without manipulation and without flinching: The horrific aspects of the story are faced cleanly, never exploited for scare or sentimentality, as aspects of the world we live in. The result carries something rare in recent plays: a sense of human destiny, an acknowledgment that however much we shape the course of our own lives, we still find them altered by something bigger and less explicable. A lot of dramatic tension has leaked out of contemporary theater through the notion that life is arbitrary and random; to suggest that there’s a pattern behind the randomness restores the tension with astonishing force.
I can imagine a production of Going to St. Ives starting on a lower pitch than Maria Mileaf’s; every so often, her staging reveals hints of a temptation to pump up the emotional volume. But in general, Mileaf has handled the piece calmly and cagily, letting her two strong performers build their presences without any affectation or obtrusive directorial decoration. And “strong” is an understatement. Benesch, drawn and febrile, oscillates elegantly between a scientist’s surgical cool and a mother’s heartfelt anguish; she’s captured perfectly, among other things, the peculiar angsty tone in the voices of the politically engaged. Caldwell, stern, acidic, and as toweringly implacable as a caryatid, is superb in both the literal and the generalized senses of that word—and this in a role far from the down-home characters she usually plays. Anyone casting a Clytemnestra need look no further.