The Great Dictator's Mother

'My Dinner with Andre' meets Idi Amin's mom's memoir? Linda Kelsey and Marvette Knight star in Lee Blessing's chatty 'Going to St. Ives'
Courtesy of Park Square Theatre

It's the same old story: you have a kid, try to raise him right, make sure he does his homework, learns some manners, brushes his teeth before bed. The little shaver subsequently grows at an exponential rate, and before you know it he's an internationally vilified, ruthless, mentally unbalanced dictator with the blood of countless innocents on his hands.

On second thought, perhaps May N'Kame had a rougher than average parenting experience. As portrayed by Marvette Knight in this area premiere of Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives, May, when younger, caught the eye of a military man in her nameless African nation, was made his wife, and saw her offspring eventually go all Idi Amin on their impoverished nation. Knight is teamed with Linda Kelsey as Cora, a prim British ophthalmologist whom May visits after she suffers both literal and metaphorical problems processing all she's seen.

And so, over the course of two acts, we have two women talking. And not much else. It's not too egregious a breach of confidentiality to reveal that May wants to enlist Cora to help kill her son--the twist comes early, and much of the drama is devoted to the planning of the deed and what follows. A subplot is introduced in the form of Cora's recently deceased young son, though a monologue in which Cora tells the story of his death comes across as hackneyed and melodramatic despite Kelsey's impassioned, injured delivery.

It's a rare misstep in this taut, dialogue-driven drama directed by Carolyn Levy. The play seems tailored to the needs of a mid-sized theater: There are only two actors required, not much in the way of sets (Steven M. Kath provides an austere sketch of an English sitting room, then an autumnal end-of-days back garden for Act II), and no effects. The problem, though, is that watching two characters talk for two hours is not, by definition, a rock-solid entertainment experience.

And yet they pull it off. Kelsey is entirely plausible as the harried, burnt-out, frizzy-haired doctor holding things together with the baling strings of denial and careerism, though it's Knight who ends up making off with possession of the evening. She portrays a tragic character who must kill her beloved son to save the lives of innocents, and who feels the pull of culpability for every day that passes in which she doesn't make it happen. She's also a citizen of a dictatorship, right up next to the center of madness and arbitrary violence that comprises its core, and in an offhand aside she can imagine the day when her son might knock her off before she can get to him first.

Watching Knight's work, one can easily think of all the ways May could be shabbily portrayed (frightened wailer, all-knowing wise woman, pure-hearted do-gooder). Knight instead gives a performance of such self-awareness and poise that the eye rarely strays from her. Done up in Elin Anderson's African clothing and headwear, Knight cuts a regal figure, and her gestures and line readings combine a royal haughtiness with the fine-tuned ambiguity and dark playfulness of the long-term hardcore paranoiac. Knight jousts and jests with Kelsey with such subtlety and such a complicated presence that one is left pondering May's motivations and accommodations long after the lights fall.

The experience of seeing a show at Park Square remains somewhat odd, with its spacious auditorium and lobby giving way to the emptiness of the St. Paul night. While this show is playing to good-sized audiences, after they melt into the somnambulant environs one feels the ephemeral nature of perhaps one of the finer performances this year. Knight mixes cautious distance with the sardonic irony of one whose every utterance could be cause for death, and by the end she and Kelsey have stubbornly refused to grasp for easy meanings in exploring the particular traps in which both characters find themselves.

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