L. Scott Caldwell and Vivienne Benesch in Going to St. Ives(Photo © James Leynse)
L. Scott Caldwell and Vivienne Benesch in Going to St. Ives
(Photo © James Leynse)
In Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives someone comes to a beautifully appointed Cornwall, England home and a charged discussion ensues concerning the extinction of a family member. If it were 1952 and Neil Patel had designed as suave a drawing room as this one, the play would be Frederick Knott's Dial M for Murder. But it isn't 1952; it's 2005, and times are no longer hospitable to expertly crafted but hermetic theatrical thrillers in which the difference between good and bad is as clear cut as Waterford crystal. Moral ambiguity is the order of the day.

When it comes to demonstrating how screwy the moral compass has become as the 21st century gets shakily underway, dramatist Blessing -- last on board with the extremely potent Thief River -- has come up with a whopper. He confronts eye surgeon Cora Gage (Vivienne Benesch) with May N'Kame (L. Scott Caldwell), whose son is the genocidal emperor of a fictional but recognizable African country. (N'Kame insists on calling it an empire, in haughty tones.) Suffering from glaucoma, N'Kame is about to go under Gage's laser beaming, and once the operation is concluded, Gage has a favor to ask of her: She'd like the Emperor Mother to intercede with her son on behalf of four doctors who are being held captive. N'Kame has a request of her own, which she only vouchsafes after a cat-and-mouse game that she plays with Gage and during which she maintains the upper hand. Her inquiry is both astonishing and ominous. Though she has continually expressed respect for her son, she wants to kill him and hopes that the surgeon -- a woman of obvious integrity -- will supply the poison.

Just as N'Kame intuits Gage's temptation to fork over a vial of undetectable substance to rid the world of a Holocaust-happy tyrant, the audience intuits that it'll happen; otherwise, there's no play. So it's not spoiling anything for a reviewer to divulge that the poison changes hands and finds it way to its ultimate goal. What intrigues Blessing is not the murder of a man who himself has green-lighted the deaths of thousands and has even attended some of the more hideous killings; rather, it's the conflict and the bond between two strong women who collude in a crime that many would applaud but who must endure its psychological and political after-effects.

Blessing, with his mind racing as it must whenever he contrives one of his ingenious plots, compounds both women's situations. Whereas N'Kame realizes that she wants to dispatch her son, Gage mourns the young son whom she lost some years before in an accidental shooting. She feels responsible for the death and knows that her increasingly estranged American husband also holds her responsible. Accumulating guilt leads her in Blessing's second act to N'Kame's African compound, where N'Kame is now under house arrest. (Patel's adaptable set and David Lander's ingenious lighting cunningly turn the pastoral England of Act I into sweltering Africa, and the neutral hues in which Ann Hould-Ward has garbed Gage continue to contrast with the far brighter colors of N'Kame's clothing.) Suspense suddenly focuses on whether May will accompany Cora -- the women are now on a first-name basis -- back to England or whether she's to remain where she is and face certain execution.

Whereas Blessing in Thief River examined the interlocking lives of men seen in both their young and middle-aged years, here he looks at how fragile life can be for women even if they're ineluctably strong. As Gage and N'Kame present themselves, they're uncommon women, yet their worlds are no more solid than the Blue Willow cups and saucers that Blessing has written into the play. Without revealing too much of the crockery's symbolism, a reviewer might say that a corollary to Chekhov's dictum about guns brought on stage eventually having to fire is that china or glass slotted into a dramatic narrative must eventually break. (Keep in mind that The Glass Menagerie was revived last week.)

The dilemma(s) faced by Gage and N'Kame are so challenging that audiences can't avoid becoming absorbed by them. Moreover, the doleful conclusion that Blessing draws about their prospects is honest; he doesn't suggest a bright future for anyone committing questionable acts, even for what might appear to be the right reasons, and no one watching the ambiguous outcome is likely to disagree. However, the two noble ladies do an awful lot of talking about what to do next. In the second act, particularly, their somber têtes-à-têtes can begin to set patrons' heads nodding. Also, unless I missed N'Kame's explanation, at no time is the reason why she's ostensibly doomed made clear. Was the undetectable poison detected after all, or does the subsequent regime simply consider her a partner in her son's atrocities?

It takes strong actors to portray strong characters, so Blessing and director Maria Mileaf are lucky in having obtained the services of Caldwell and Benesch -- and Caldwell and Benesch are lucky in being directed by Mileaf. The actresses and the director help to make sure that the figures they're playing are never just opposing arguments. Their postures may be initially contained, but in time they bend; the same can be said for their voices and the uncertain looks that come into their eyes. Though N'Kame declares Blue Willow "synthetic trash, designed to charm ignorant, middle-class customers," Lee Blessing's play isn't. It's strong tea for the intellectually equipped.