Shakespeare makes murder look so simple: a brief meeting with the apothecary, an exchange of poison and it's on to the next scene. In the drama Going to St. Ives, Lee Blessing takes an in-depth look at the interaction between conspirators before and after a political assassination. Beginning this week and running through Feb. 22, Next Act Theatre stages Blessing's drama at the Off-Broadway Theatre.
Next Act's production stars Ora Jones, an ensemble member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, as the mother of a brutal African dictator who travels to England seeking treatment to save her vision. Milwaukee Rep resident actress Laura Gordon co-stars as Dr. Cora Gage, one of the world's best ocular surgeons. Blessing, who also wrote the two-person political drama A Walk In the Woods, weaves the characters through a pair of delicate conversations surrounding the inevitable climax.
The script has been criticized for its curious placement of the climax, however. The central event on which the play seems to hinge essentially happens during intermission. For some critics, this makes the entire second act unnecessary. But Next Act director Mary McDonald Kerr defends the second act, citing it as proof of the drama's maturity and sophistication. The standard misconception, she says, is that when the ruthless dictators are killed, everything's OK.
"Even if you think that what [a character is] about to do is the right thing, that doesn't mean it will be a clean, happy ending," Kerr says. She notes that the second act of Going to St. Ives explores the complexity of an assassination's aftermath and how it affects those involved.
The challenge of keeping the audience emotionally engaged rests squarely on the shoulders of Jones and Gordon. Both actresses bring a great deal of experience to the stage and seem fully immersed in their current roles. In addition to the exhaustive character work that goes into a role that takes up roughly half of a 90-minute play, Jones has worked with dialect coach Susan Sweeney to perfect an East African accent for her character.
Having had the desired British accent from the beginning, Gordon has focused on the intricate nature of her character.
"In my career right now, I'm really only interested in finding the truth, and having real conversations with someone onstage," Gordon says. The challenge of portraying a complex character negotiating a difficult ethical situation in Next Act's intimate space seems ideal for her.