Finessing the Sceond Act: Next Act's GOING TO ST IVES pt.4

Feb. 1, 2009
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Through February 22nd, Next Act Theatre stages 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 . . .


Me: In Shakespeare there’s maybe a . . . five minute trip to the apothecary, you get you’re poison and you’re on to the next thing . . .

Mary MacDonald Kerr: Right. You just do it.

Me: But this is [playwright] Lee Blessing expanding on that. There’s a lot more going on there. But that’s a full hour. That’s’ the first two scenes, right?

Mary MacDonald Kerr: Te first act is close to an hour, yeah.

Me: And then there’s intermission. And then you come back with a second Act. And I’ve read a few reviews from different productions that suggest that Act wasn’t written as well as the first one. To them it seems like all of the central conflict is over.

Laura Gordon:
It’s interesting, because I’d read some of those reviews, too and I was like, ”What, really? Huh. . . .”

Me: [laugh]

Laura Gordon: But I’ve gotta say, I find the second act enormously compelling. Because maybe you DO reach intermission and you think, “oh my god, what is this moral—this ethical dilemma—and we’ve been bandying that about and it’s fascinating and really, really, really interesting. But then, what are the ramifications of it? And I’m finding the second act amazingly cool to work on. And there’s something about working on a play like this. I was trying to piece my way through it in the last few days and I think Ora and myself and Mary are probably really well-suited to be working on a play like this now in our lives. And obviously . . . the roles are age appropriate. I look back when I was younger and when I’m playing a character that I don’t share any similarities with—that I don’t see myself in that character, that it was much more difficult. And I just think with age and experience your ability to really have empathy for a character that your playing warts and all. And to just say, “I’m just going and I’m going inside,” . . . and it’s easier to do with life experience behind you to just . . . and so I find that second act really fascinating to really just try t get inside the heads of these people. It’s like—what do I have in common with the mother of Idi Amin?

Ora Jones: A monster.

Laura Gordon: but it’s really interesting.

Ora Jones: Yeah . . . I agree with that also and I think also that no matter how well a play is written. No matter how eloquent it is or seamless, it can be destroyed in a minute when actors forget to be present. If you come-in playing the end at the beginning, which is a real hazard, because we’ve read the play. You know, it’s our job, we’re supposed to read the play . . . we’re supposed to know the play . .  we’re supposed to have all this information. But as the people who are going to put his information out there for an audience, we’re supposed to have this information, but how you reveal that information is very important. So as far as the second act goes, you come back [from intermission] and you don’t really know what has happened. The last thing you know. . . is that the doctor gave the empress something . . . who knows what happens during the intermission. All you know when you come back is that you’re now in Africa. You don’t really know what has happened. And there are so many more surprises in that second act. First acts are always more difficult because of the exposition involved. You’ve got to lay out the story. Why are we here? And then a lot of times people will talk about the second act . . . like it might’ve flagged because all of the exposition all of the storytelling the think somehow got done in the first act, but really there’s a whole other set of issues in this particular act that I find very compelling and very heart-wrenching. But it’s the challenge o the storyteller to not give away the end of the story. If you’re in a play where your character . . . dies at the end, let’s say . . . you can’t start the play like that. You can’t start the act like that—that you’re already defeated. If your character is victorious at the end of a play, but he has to go through and overcome obstacles, you can’t just leap over those hurdles. You have to be present for every single moment. And I find this play exhausting, because A: there are only two people in it, and . . . you can’t hide behind anybody. And B: you’re constantly being impacted by each other and by the thoughts and emotions that occur within them. And I find that very rich, especially in the second act when guards get let down, and when the truth )that all that we keep saying that we want) finally gets revealed.

Mary MacDonald Kerr:
And I think that it’s snazzy and exciting to talk about murder and big, moral ethical questions and it’d be easier to write a play where that was the end. But what’s important is . . . and then what happens? You know . . . if they just kill Saddam Hussein everything will be okay. Right?

Laura Gordon: Mission Accomplished.

Mary MacDonald Kerr: Mission Accomplished. sh** happens afterwards. And that can’t be ignored. And what the second act is about is mostly what happens to these two people and it’s not necessarily about what happens to the nation, although you DO find out about that stuff. But often life is messy and decisions are messy and you might think that you have an opinion in the first act about what the right thing would be to do. But even if yout think that what she’s going to do is the right thing, that doesn’t mean that it will be a clean, happy ending. And so I’m glad that [Blessing] didn’t let us believe that that’s the way it would work . . . the second act is more about the two of them than the first act.

The conversation with cast and director of GOING TO ST. IVES continues tomorrow.


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