The clash of cultures on a cosmic level is always grist for theatre's mill. On a personal level the clash—even a quiet one—can become even more intensely dramatic. Differences are vast between the British world-renowned eye surgeon who is called into service in the cause of the mother of a self-styled African emperor, who needs an operation to save her sight. As Lee Blessing's play takes shape, those differences make what transpires between the women an intense exercise in philosophical territoriality. The unsentimental truth in the inevitable bonding defies any specious declarations of sisterhood or even liking between the two.

Jacqueline Schultz is brisk and chilly as Dr. Cora Gage, an accomplished surgeon seemingly without any of the feminine traits that would allow emotion to leak from her seams. Esther Scott is the larger-than-life May N'Kame, blunt and lethally pragmatic, mother of a monstrous son—a graduate of the Idi Amin school of rule—who reigns over his fiefdom with a scepter of terror. Both women have a secret, and in some respects it is the same one, involving the quagmire of guilt, love, and conflict that surround the mother-son relationship. May's request of Cora is not only morally untenable and politically dangerous but, even unfulfilled, it will change both their lives and bind the women through eternity, as each has to question her own relationship with humanity.

Simon Levy's sure-footed direction takes the play into all the darker places of the heart, building to a crescendo that's devastating and ultimately shattering, but successfully involving the audience in the unfolding moral dilemma onstage. He is stymied to a small degree by a repetitious script that keeps returning to cover the same ground throughout two long acts, and by a few minor clichés in the characterizations of the English woman and the African queen mother, but he is markedly aided by two brilliant performances, both of which soar in their separate flight patterns.

Sean McMullen's simple set is just right, as are Kathi O'Donohue's fine lighting and Naila Aladdin-Sanders' costumes.

"Going to St. Ives," presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Tues.-Thurs. 8 p.m. Feb. 20-Apr. 24. $15-22. (323) 663-1525.