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Mothers and Sons

She Brought Him Into This World--Is She Responsible For Taking Him Out, Too?

WHAT AILS YA: Lynn Chavis plots with a doctor to kill her own son.

By John Barry | Posted 1/31/2007

Going to St. Ives

By Lee Blessing

At Everyman Theatre through Feb. 25

"I love life." "And I want you to help me kill my son." That exchange is the core dialectic of Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives. The first line is delivered by Dr. Cora Spencer, a world-famous English eye surgeon, who holds the Hippocratic oath near and dear to her heart. The second line is delivered by her patient, the queen May N'Kame, the mother of a not-so-petty African dictator.

It's the perfect dramatic imbroglio. A surgeon wants an African queen to help her free four other doctors from the clutch of an African strongman. N'Kame, the mother of the strongman, wants Cora to give her a vial of poison, which will, after 36 hours, kill her son. Presumably his death will save others. But being a doctor, Cora is supposed to keep patients alive, not poison them.

It sounds like the sort of dilemma that can keep things buzzing between acts, especially in a city where the upper crust is top heavy with world-famous doctors. Where exactly is the ethical line drawn? When does the Hippocratic oath become hypocritical? We know that doctors aren't supposed to torture people--see: Death and the Maiden, produced earlier this season at Center State--but when they're supposed to stop people from torturing others, should they suspend their ethics?

Under the direction of Juanita Rockwell, the Everyman acting duo of Lynn Chavis and Kimberly Schraf give that quandary a run for its money, and Everyman deserves credit for coming up with a play that confronts serious issues. But Blessing's script never really catches up to the ethical discussion and runs out of steam long before the actors do.

The first act starts off at a pretty good pace. May N'Kame is, by far, the production's greatest asset. Chavis plays her with an unsentimental, elegant poise that is a strange conjunction of British propriety and Third World despair. As her accent hints, she may be an African, but her early years were spent in England, and Chavis' performance never lets the balance sway far in one direction or the other. Her character's dark, deadpan wit adds sparkle to the conversation. "Why do people build empires," she asks, in reference to her son, "if not to show them to their mothers?"

But there are two actors and two acts, and as the play continues the premise gets stretched pretty thin. In one memorable riposte, N'Kame describes the English spectrum of colors as ranging from gray to invisible. That pretty well defines Dr. Spencer, the eye doctor who makes a pact with the devil. Schraf's Dr. Spencer is visible but undefined, except when interjecting occasional hand-wringing monologues about the death of her 10-year-old son years ago. By the second act, her humorless, frustrated character doesn't do much except keep up a whining, pleading tone as she tries desperately to get N'Kame to safety. Her frustration is believable--why won't N'Kame just listen to what she's saying?--but, for the audience, it's contagious.

It's just a chicken-or-egg guess, but you can suppose that, when Blessing wrote the play, the ethical conundrum preceded the characters. If there's a bonding element for the two characters, it's the fact that each of these two mothers feels she is--intentionally or not--complicit in her son's death. Dr. Spencer's son Jim died in an alley after a stray bullet hit her car, and she wonders to this day why she decided to drive down that alley. N'Kame, of course, is stolidly determined to cut short her own son's term, and does.

Oddly, though, even at the end, the characters are uncomfortable in one another's presence. Dr. Spencer pleads for her attention but only gets it in small doses, as N'Kame's regal aura fills the room. The occasional breakthrough is achieved, but it doesn't add up: For the most part, Dr. Spencer is N'Kame's foil, and an inadequate one at that.

That may be why the dialogue is a little wooden. Blessing has taken up big ideas in earlier plays. Walk in the Woods, a conversation between a Soviet and an American negotiator at an arms-control conference, made him a Pulitzer finalist. But in Going to St. Ives, the ideas are squeezed into a small stage and the scenario is somewhat forced. Hashing out dilemmas is great, but when it appears that the play was built to accommodate the argument, it's difficult to understand why we can't just fast-forward to a post-show discussion. This play certainly makes you think, but it may also cause you to check your watch.

Speaking of which, torture is an issue that certainly could stand a little discussion these days. With that in mind, Everyman donates a portion of its proceeds from the Sunday, Feb. 25, matinée to Physicians for Human Rights.

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