Tense negotiations over tea: Going to St. Ives at the Varscona, a review

Belinda Cornish, Patricia Darbasie in Going To St. Ives, Atlas Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The negotiations at the heart of Going To St. Ives involve a doctor and a patient, and a hard-fought exchange of favours. They have nothing to do with waiting lists.

In this knotty two-hander by American playwright Lee Blessing of A Walk In The Woods and A Body of Water fame, they involve double-edged moral choices with devastating consequences, the ethics of one life vs. many, the legacy of colonialism, the tension between personal and public morality, the responsibility of the First World to intervene in the atrocities of the Third.

The beverage of choice is tea. The metaphor of choice is vision. May NKame (Patricia Darbasie), the mother of a genocidally brutal African “emperor,” has come to England for a sight-saving operation at the hands of renowned British eye surgeon Dr Cora Gage (Belinda Cornish).

It’s May herself, decked out in gloriously colourful African robes, who’s a sight to behold in the doctor’s subdued and tasteful English parlour in St. Ives, a village near Cambridge. She looks about as inconspicuous as an exotic temple in a suburban housing development. “I’m in pain,” says May. “But it’s only physical.”

The tea-time that follows is, for starters, a clash of cultures. And the participants are wary. The witty African is confrontational, starchy, heavily ironic — about Englishness, the hollow ring of English manners, the inbred Brit superiority complex. Her every comment is barbed; she even pushes the racist card. Darbasie steps up with gusto to the task of provoking the doctor.

Cornish as the doctor smiles a wintry smile, grits her teeth, and falls back on the vast polar icecap of English reserve. May characterizes her politeness as “lying badly.”

Why the opening gambit? Why does the doctor restrain herself? That’s the first mystery of many layered mysteries in Going To St. Ives. And Julien Arnold’s production keeps them close to the chest.

Light seems to be shed when we learn, on this the eve of May’s eye surgery, that the doctor is asking a favour. It’s humanitarian: Cora wants May to intercede with her cruel dictator son to secure the release of four doctors sentenced to death for the crime of refusing to revive torture victims so they can be further tortured.

Mercy, says May, who calls herself “the mother of a monster,” isn’t out of the question. “Without the chance of mercy, cruelty loses its keenest edge.”

But there’s a catch, and a hook. May wants something in return. It’s something that compromises the doctor’s professional ethics and gives them a broader … vision. Intriguingly, this tug-of-war, with its premise of an eye operation, has a double optic. It gives dramatic momentum to the scenario of two women arguing. And it gives an artful, talky play suspense. The consequences of deal-making over tea in Going To St. Ives are both global and intensely personal, outward- and inward-looking. 

Both May and Cora have turbulent histories as mothers. The latter, we’ve learned, struggles with guilt over the death, at seven, of her son when he was accidentally caught in gang crossfire on a detour from an L.A. freeway.

The second act, set in Africa six months later in the aftermath of the deal that’s struck in Act I, has its surprises too. Over tea (herbal) there’s a difficult negotiation, obstacles, unexpected resistance; it seems a little drawn out, in truth, after the explosive drama of Act I. Every clarification in Blessing’s play is a step into further complication, none of it soothing to the soul.

In Arnold’s Atlas Theatre production, two smart and resourceful actors tuck into the thorny provocations of this intricate gamesmanship in in a full-throttle emotional way. Going To St. Ives would never work if the upper hand weren’t passed back and forth, and the stage partners didn’t have matched dramatic heft.

As the doctor armed with a legacy  of mannerly restraint, and a professional principle of the sanctity of life, Cornish gives us a character perpetually under siege by the fury and grief woven into her own past. It’s a compelling performance, tense, alert, conveying reservoirs of feeling under a crumbling fortification.

May is her worst nightmare, and her biggest temptation. And Darbasie’s canny May knows it. The actor negotiates expertly a blend of sardonic bluntness, angry grievances, and a sly, worldly playfulness that has heartbreaking concealments of its own.

Fun would not be the right word for this. But it’s dramatically lively, as you’ll see in this Atlas production. Where does moral responsibility for the past lie? Who should be picking up the tab for the sins of colonialism? Where is tranquillity to be found?

As May says, late in Act II, the nursery rhyme riddle (after which the play is named) talks about “going to St. Ives.” It doesn’t say anything about staying there.


Going To St. Ives

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Atlas

Written by: Lee Blessing

Directed by: Julien Arnold

Starring: Belinda Cornish, Patricia Darbasie

Where: Varscons Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through April 14

Tickets: yeglive.ca

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