GLOUCESTER - Big ideas, small cast: That's Lee Blessing's hallmark, both in his best-known play, "A Walk in the Woods," and elsewhere. The formula can produce powerfully condensed, emotionally and intellectually stimulating drama, but it can also come across too obviously as just that: a formula.
Both the virtues and the weaknesses of Blessing's methods are on display in "Going to St. Ives," which is receiving a crisp and often riveting production from Gloucester Stage artistic director Eric C. Engel. Just two characters share the stage: May N'Kame, the mother of the vicious dictator of an unnamed Central African nation, and Dr. Cora Gage, the British ophthalmologist to whom she has traveled for urgent surgery. But it's not just these women we're watching; for good and ill, "Britain" and "Africa" are characters for Blessing, too.
What's good is that the playwright engages us in thinking about the lingering effects of empire on the places and people it subjugates, about the complexities of applying any culture's ethics to any other culture's circumstances, and about the inextricable links between personal and political acts. What's more problematic is not just that these huge themes sometimes assert themselves too bluntly, at the expense of character and story, but that Blessing's thinking about them is sometimes too schematic, too polarized, too neat.
These may be two sides of the same problem: Black-and-white thinking often leads to black-and-white writing, a trap that's even easier to fall into when you're writing, as Blessing is, about relationships between blacks and whites. Happily, though, Gloucester's production has two actresses who go a long way toward adding nuance both to the play's ideas and to their expression through character.
Jacqui Parker has the juicier role, as the guarded, imperious mother whose feelings toward her monstrous but devoted son are even more complicated than you might imagine - are, indeed, so complicated that they propel the central, startling plot turn that it would be unfair to reveal. Lindsay Crouse, meanwhile, must act out every cliche of repressed, stiff-lipped Britishness; particularly in the second act, when the scene shifts from Cora Gage's genteel sitting room in St. Ives, near Cambridge, England, to May N'Kame's garden in her nameless nation, the doctor is reduced to a shrill, repetitive caricature.
Even so, Crouse makes her interesting to watch as she wrestles with a series of ethical and personal quandaries. And the prickly, complex relationship between the two women evolves in surprising but satisfying ways, with both revealing more wit, warmth, ruthlessness, and fury than you might at first suspect.
The week of rehearsals leading up to last weekend's opening was reportedly difficult, with illness contributing to delays in getting the show fully prepared. At the Friday night performance I saw, Engel warned the audience that both actresses might occasionally need to call for help with lines; both did, with Parker also sipping water to help an ailing voice. But the emotional force, committed passion, and intelligence of their performances overcame these small distractions; it's a treat to see two such subtle and versatile actors working together, even on an off night.
Gloucester's production further enhances the play with carefully attuned design choices. Jenna McFarland Lord's simple but effective sets provide damask and antique china for Cora, weathered paint and mismatched teacups for May. Gail Astrid Buckley dresses the doctor in suitably muted neutrals, while unleashing a dazzling array of pattern and color for May's vivid tunics and headdresses.
Underneath it all, Dewey Dellay's sound design combines hints of European and African harmonies with birdsong and crickets to create a world that's neither First nor Third, but an evocative mix of the two. The result is haunting, feeling almost familiar yet fresh, like a half-remembered, redirected metaphor from a nursery rhyme. In short, it's just right for "Going to St. Ives."
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.