Blue Willow porcelain and motherhood seem the only common threads in two lives presented by Lee Blessing in his play Going to St. Ives, produced beautifully by the La Jolla Playhouse. That is, unless one counts the threat that lurks in an English garden or at the front door of a small house in central Africa. Suffering glaucoma, May N'Kame (L. Scott Caldwell) comes to the St. Ives, England, home of renowned eye surgeon Dr. Cora Gage (Amy Morton) to have her failing sight restored. May returns to Africa and her despotic son, dictator of a small, dusty empire, with everything she bargained for, including the poison with which to kill him.
May is a seeker of services and goods, Cora the provider, but there is much more involved in their coming together than healing on the one hand and the means for murder on the other. A bereaved and guilt-ridden mother, Cora bargains for the release of four condemned African physicians whose crime is their refusal to treat victims tortured by May's son. More antagonistic than empathic, each woman extracts truth from the other, and each gains what she wants. The personal and political costs are high.
Act Two deals with the aftermath and the deepening relationship between the two. On the surface, it seems logical that a British surgeon willing to risk her safety for four unknown African physicians would do the same for an African woman known to her. The fact that May's eyes belong to Cora now does not provide sufficient motivation for the rest of the story. Beyond the power struggle and mutual admiration, there has to be love. Otherwise, Going to St. Ives is a mere metaphor for British imperialism and the African desire for self-determination.
Perhaps inadvertently, Blessing has re-created the thrust and parry of the negotiators in his 1987 play, A Walk in the Woods. In this case, the negotiators are female. Despite their cultural differences and because of their wrenching losses, one expects these two women to care for each other on a much deeper level. They are admirable but oddly unsympathetic characters who cannot get beyond their stiff spines, no matter how hard Caldwell and Morton try. They've not been given enough. Or perhaps they've been given too much. Maria Mileaf directs. Annie Smart provides two hugely divergent settings under the same blue sky. Ann Hould-Ward provides regal attire befitting an African queen and a no-nonsense, rather horsy Brit. Lenore Doxsee's lighting and Michael Roth's music add atmosphere.
"Going to St. Ives," presented by La Jolla Playhouse at the Mandell Weiss Forum on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. (on the corner of La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road). Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. Sept. 17-Oct. 15. $19-39. (858) 550-1010.