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Theater review: Do yourself a favor and go to 'St. Ives'

Theater review: Do yourself a favor and go to 'St. Ives'

Barrington Stage has mounted a wonderful production of Lee Blessing’s powerful play "Going to St. Iv

“As I was going to St. Ives” is a nursery rhyme riddle with a deceptively simple solution. Or is it that simple? Depending on how you interpret some of the language and take into account the narrator’s intent and actual itinerary, the outcome and answer could have different solutions.

‘Going to St. Ives’

WHERE: Barrington Stage Company, Stage 2, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Mass.

WHEN: Through July 9

HOW MUCH: $39- $30

MORE INFO: 413-236-8888 or www.barringtonstageco.org

The people that you meet may have just come from where you are headed, but it is also possible you may have met them on your way and they are fleeing the same struggles and demons that set you on the road in the first place, all of you headed in the same direction. What first seems a simple rhyming riddle becomes a larger more complex and frustrating puzzle as you realize that some of the pieces may be missing.

Barrington Stage has mounted a wonderful production of Lee Blessing’s powerful play about human dignity, discovery and search for peace, and it is not to be missed.

Thought-provoking and dramatically satisfying, “Going to St. Ives,” sets two eminent women in a perfectly appointed sitting room having tea. One is Dr. Cora Gage (Gretchen Egolf) a gifted eye surgeon dealing with secrets and struggles in her personal world, and the other, May N’Kame (Myra Lucretia Taylor), her patient, the mother of a murderous dictator from an unnamed African empire, speak of the surgery that is to take place the following morning.

Seeking a favor

As the polite conversation wanes and the tea starts to cool, things become complex and tense as Cora requests a political favor from May. Cora wants the release of four colleagues being held in Africa. May needs a favor in return — a favor that shocks and pushes both women to the limits of their own moral boundaries. May needs help in ridding her nation of her murderous and mentally deranged son.

Blessing is a master of these dramas — creating deceptive little discourses that morph into massive and all-consuming treatises on moral and ethical dilemmas. Soapbox drama is rarely watchable or entertaining, but as with his 1988 prize-winning “A Walk in the Woods,” the playwright turns an intimate conversation between two disparate opinions and whips it into an insightful and compelling piece of theater.

Tautly directed by Tyler Merchant and assisted by two finely gifted actresses, the evening never drags on or becomes too heavy-handed. As the repressed and fearful surgeon, Egolf wonderfully inhabits a woman ever looking for redemption from a previous misery.

In the second act, Egolf perfectly balances Cora’s plea for May to save what she has left with Cora’s need for her own forgiveness. Taylor’s perfect quick bite and barb in the first act are whisked away in the second in a well performed monologue as May uncovers the devastating realization that there are limits to a mother’s love, and that her lack of action has had profound and damaging consequences.

Powerful and humorous

True, there are a few moments where Blessing’s moral maxims fly dangerously close to cliché, and the use of eye surgery that opens the eyes of the doctor as well as the patient borders on bromide, but the power of the story and Blessing’s careful and artful use of humor quell any thought of further criticism.

“Kits, cats, sacks, wives, how many were going to St. Ives?” By the end of the play, you discover the answer to the riddle is the one you knew all along, but the reason for the journey has become crystal clear.

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