Detroit Repertory Theatre has nabbed one of the best plays of this or any other season, presenting it in a fine production, with two damn fine actors. The title for Going to St. Ives, written by Tony Award-winning playwright Lee Blessing, comes from a child's nursery rhyme that is really a riddle meant for grown-ups. It asks the ethical question: Is it ever right to kill another human being?
May N'Kame (Charity Clark) is on stage when the curtain rises, and we see a plain country cottage in St. Ives, England, near Cambridge (well done by set designer Harry Wetzel). The cottage is home to Dr. Cora Gage (Leah Smith), who will perform laser surgery on May for a tumor behind her eye. May has come to England, where she was raised, from an African nation in the throes of dictatorship and internecine warfare, where her son is the emperor.
In the course of the first scene, we learn a great deal about the two women; May likes to bait Cora, and the good doctor covers herself in a cloak of good manners. Each woman's tragedy is her son: Cora, we learn, lost hers in an accidental shooting, and her husband blames her for it; May's darker tragedy is her son's success as a murderous tyrant.
Playwright Blessing keeps his audience guessing about the story's direction until May asks Dr. Gage for a favor. When that favor is finally asked, as a simple plea, the audience gasps: Suddenly May doesn't seem so haughty and condescending, but more like a humanitarian. The favor which is best kept secret until you see the play moves the melodrama of St. Ives closer to the tragedy of Medea.
Blessing writes dialogue that stings, not just as the characters delve into each other's inner recesses, but as they seek out the audience's soft spots. This happens when May talks about everything she gave up because she was blackmailed into an unwanted marriage. Writer Blessing turns the screw, too, with aphorism: "Without mercy, cruelty loses its keenest edge," May says, about the state of affairs she witnesses on a daily basis in Africa. She also confronts the English role in colonialism, and at that point, we might as well substitute "American" for "English."
The second and final act takes place in May's home six months later, when she is under house arrest for several crimes she did not commit, as well as one she did. Cora has come to save her, which is ironic, because as a doctor she is enamored of life, observing and savoring it, but has given up her practice for political activism. As is the case throughout the play, Blessing uses his wit to soften the deeply distressing situation. May says, facetiously, "That's the trouble with house arrest, you can't shop properly." Cora wants May to leave the country with her and return to England. But, as in the nursery rhyme, only one of them will go to St. Ives.
The resolution is a temporary détente between women of different races, both mothers, who stand in for their respective countries; it neither leads us to false hope, nor does it steer us away from the need for personal, decisive action about our life choices. It leaves us to ponder as the two women sip tea on a sunny veranda.
Actress Leah Smith is wonderfully wise, strong and English as the doctor who cures and cares. Any American actress who can differentiate the pronunciation of "sorry" for instance, when it's an apology for a social gaffe vs. when it's an expression of feeling is worth her salt, and Smith earns a case of Morton's. As the proud and snarky May, Charity Clark is impressive for her ability to carry herself with dignity while sailing full tilt into personal tragedy.
Barbara Busby's direction is excellent in this production, although she could have found a way to give Blessing's wit and humor a bit more attention in order to contrast the serious stuff, thereby deepening the play's emotional content. Still, this is one not to be missed.
8:30 p.m., Thursdays through Fridays, 3 and 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, until March 19, at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit; 313-868-1347.Michael H. Margolin writes about theater and the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org