Oratory and Reality: Next Act's GOING TO ST IVES pt.2
This weekend, Next Act Theatre opens its production of Lee Blessing’s drama Going To St, Ives. It’s the story of a British ocular surgeon and the mother of an African dictator. The Next Act production features Milwaukee Rep resident actress Laura Gordon as the surgeon and Chicago-based actress Ora Jones as the mother. The production is directed by Mary MacDonald Kerr. I spoke with them backstage a few week ago . . .
ORATORY AND REALITY: KEEPING IT REAL
Me: A criticism I remember from the New York Times review [of an earlier production] was that—she’s the mother of a brutal African dictator, she’s coming to see this ocular surgeon. And you’ve brought it down to that level—two people, but the criticism of it is that they’re really, really eloquent for two normal people. Doesn’t that undermine the humanity of the piece?
Ora Jones: I think a lot of it has to do with just being honest with who these people are. These are not ordinary people. The surgeon is someone who has risen to the top of her field. She spends a lot of time teaching and dealing with other people. The other character—the mother of the dictator also spends a lot of time she’s also what you would consider to be the top of her . . .
Mary MacDonald Kerr: She’s highly educated.
Ora Jones: She IS highly educated. Her father had studied in England, but we had talked early on about—big words get said by these people, but it’s really about the sort of poetry that you CAN’T have.
Mary MacDonald Kerr: You have to fight against it.
Ora Jones: You do. Because otherwise it’s just declaiming and decrying. And you’re just standing there speechifying and orating and going on, but these ideas are very, very real to them. And it’s about finding a way to make that honest and make sure that it come from an honest place. I know people in my life who re never more eloquent than when they are angry about something or upset about something.
Laura Gordon: I have to say that in working on it so far, I haven’t come across any moments where these aren’t the words that should be coming out of these characters’ mouth at this moment. And I’m kind of a big fan of eloquence. So it’s a pleasure to be so articulate. And I’ve said for years that one of the reasons why I became an actor is that it’s always been easier for me to speak other people’s words than my own. And to have the opportunity to speak something that’s this clear. And also, I think he [Lee Blesing] has done a great job of when they don’t know what to say . . . they become inarticulate at moments as well and so I think he’s done a masterful job with the language.
Mary MacDonald Kerr: I do think that . . . in less capable hands, this could just sound like big, poetic ideas. You have to actively make them your own. You have to crate people who will talk like this. But there are lots of plays . . . brilliant plays are high language plays and you always have to do that. Shakespeare or Shaw . . . you know, it’s not Mamet. But it’ okay tat it’s not. In theatre plays are often written about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances on an extraordinary day. That’s why the play’s there. It’s not about going to see an average day. Blessing is smart and he addresses early on—you come to realize that [Ora’s character] says, “I’m in a lot of pain.” [Laura’s character] says, “Aren’t you in a lot of pain? You should be in a lot of pain.” [Ora’s Character says] “I am. I’m okay with it.” She makes a reference to it only being physical. An she talks about the circumstances she comes from and her country. So [Blessing] does kind of address that and move it aside.
Me: But we DO get the humanity of these characters beyond their station.
Mary MacDonald Kerr: Yes. Absolutely.
Me: And you’ve been working on that.
Mary MacDonald Kerr: Yes.
Laura Gordon: Yes
Ora Jones: Oh, yes. You kind of can’t get away from it. Its really hard to not be moved by these people. If I’m jus sitting at home working on the lines. It’s hard for me to actually work on them if it’s not emotionally invested . . . I would say the biggest challenge for m, because I like Laura so much is trying to find the crueler moments that will push an emotional button for her. Which the characters take turns doing.
For the record, Ora is right—it IS difficult not to be moved by these people. Tears were in her eyes at the end of opening night. There was a standing ovation. A comprehensive review of the show appears in this week’s Shepherd-Express. Trancsripts from my conversation with cast and director continue tomorrow. The show runs through February 22nd.