Day By Day

Monday, January 22, 2007

An Evening At the Theatre

Last weekend “She Who Must Not Be Named” and I went to the theatre. She goes frequently; I go rarely, for reasons that will become apparent in the course of this review. It was the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore and the show was “Going to St. Ives” by Lee Blessing. I was acquainted with only one other work by him, “A Walk In the Woods” which came out back near the end of the Reagan administration and was a left-wing attack on America’s arms buildup. Blessing had won a Pulitzer Prize for that one [no surprise there] but had done nothing of significance since. “St. Ives” was billed as a response to “Walk in the Woods” and I was interested in seeing what change a couple of decades had wrought.

Well, the Cold War is over and Blessing has moved on to other lefty concerns. He’s now worried about Western insensitivity to the plight of post-colonial Africa. Like “Walk”, “St. Ives” is a two person play, consisting of a dialogue between two oppositional characters who discover in the course of their discussions a common humanity lurking beneath professional and cultural differences. The big new thing, according to the play’s publicity, is that this time the antagonists are women, not men. Wow!

I can’t imagine a better venue in which to see a small, intimate play like this than Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. It is small place, maximum seating 170, and we were seated no more than ten feet from the stage. The actors, Lynn Chavis and Kimberly Schraf, were quite competent although to my mind, Ms. Schraf, who admittedly had more to do than Ms. Chavis, [who, playing the part of the “noble negro” had only to alternate between projecting dignified sorrow and justified anger] had a tendency to over-emote in some of her more difficult scenes. As a result her character, supposedly a world-famous surgeon, seemed to be more than a little unbalanced. On the other hand, it may have been my close proximity to the stage that created that impression. The view from farther back in the audience might have been quite different.

The dialogue was only occasionally witty and it seemed that the audience laughed from time to time more from politeness than genuine amusement. For the most part the dialogue consisted of an interminable rehearsal of racial and gender stereotypes. Ms. Chavis’ played the part of the mother of an African despot, modeled on Idi Amin. Ms. Schraf plays the part of a British surgeon whose son had been killed by a black American street thug. They meet in the surgeon’s home in St. Ives, a comfortable suburban setting, well insulated from the brutal reality of both Africa and urban America, where the inhabitants live happily with little concern for the suffering of others. The purpose of their meeting is ostensibly to discuss an upcoming operation that the surgeon will be performing on the empress.

Early in the first act the play asserts as self-evident fact that the troubles of contemporary Africa were created by the sins of European colonialism and sustained by American policy in the region. The surgeon character accepts this libel without question and is anxious to atone for the sins of whitey. A secondary theme, which both characters strongly endorse, is that evil is perpetrated by men and must be corrected by women. Thus we are presented with a perfect confluence of radical feminism and anti-colonialist ideology. Wonderful! I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of this racist, sexist crapulence.

In the course of their conversation we discover that both women have ulterior motives. The surgeon wants the empress to intercede to secure the freedom of four doctors who are scheduled to be executed by her son. The empress wants to secure a reliable poison with which she can assassinate her son so as to save innumerable lives. The white surgeon agonizes about her breach of professional ethics but eventually, in the second act, accedes to the empress’ demands.

The final act takes place in Africa. We discover that both women have succeeded in their goals. The doctors have been freed, the tyrant assassinated, and the results have been less than satisfactory. The men who took over after the tyrants’ death are nearly as bad as he had been and the empress has been arrested and is under a sentence of death. The surgeon has divorced her husband, has abandoned her practice, and has become an annoying international “rights” activist. She has arrived in Africa to take the empress to safety in the West. After more interminable dialogue the empress has refused to leave, preferring to die in Africa rather than to live in a soulless West, and the surgeon has decided to also remain in Africa, ministering to the needs of the wonderful soulful African people rather than to the rich hypocrites of the West.

At the end of the play I was heartened to see that only a few of the younger audience members did that silly “standing ovation” thing. There was little discussion on the way out. I did, however, meet a delightful woman who tried to convince me to buy a season’s subscription to the theatre. I declined the offer.

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