Sparks fly in ‘St. Ives’

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Colleen Madden and Olivia Dawson in “Going to St. Ives.”

Colleen Madden and Olivia Dawson in “Going to St. Ives.” – Photo: Zane Williams

When strong women come together, hearts ignite, sparks fly and sometimes a combined clarity of vision emerges to reveal truths that aren’t always pretty. This thesis, brought to life by two compelling characters, drives Forward Theater Co.’s powerful production of Lee Blessing’s “Going to St. Ives” at Promenade Hall in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Director Laura Gordon, coaxes what may be career-defining performances out of actors Colleen Madden, a member of American Players Theatre’s acting company, and Olivia Dawson. The narrative by Blessing, who has won both Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes for his work, balances the play’s emotional and intellectual facets with ruthless precision. All components combine beautifully in this production to signal that the two-year-old company may have come of age.

Madden plays Dr. Cora Gage, an English optometrist firmly ensconced in her comfortable home in St. Ives, England. Dawson plays Mary N’Kame, the mother of an African dictator who fancies himself an avenging god overseeing a barren “empire.” Mary N’Kame initially visits Dr. Gage for optometric surgery, but in reality she’s seeking help in killing her son, who is responsible for the murders of hundreds, crimes for which she feels responsible because she brought him into the world.

But Dr. Gage also has a secret – a sense of guilt for inadvertently causing the death of her son two years earlier. The two women stand on opposite sides of the same mortality equation, and the actors’ masterful exploration of the theme breathes life into both performances.

Madden plays Gage with a flawless accent and quality of urgency that drives the production. Dawson’s N’Kame is alternately regal and humane, a contemplative soul fully aware of the weight of her decision and its likely consequences. “A mother is a weak part for a true god,” N’Kame says in acknowledging her son’s prospective demise at her hands.

Gordon sculpts her players’ characterizations as separate but connected by maternal instincts that Madden’s Gage would rather not acknowledge but that Dawson’s N’Kame appears to have known even before their meeting. Despite her problem with vision, it is N’Kame who sees the situation clearly.

For this production, Forward Theater uses Promenade Hall on Overture’s second floor, a temporary performance space fitted with bleacher-type structures and comfortable seats. ”

The sets and properties by Charles J. Trieloff II are evocative of their characters, including a cool blue and white rug in Gage’s St. Ives house that mirrors the design on the doctor’s teacups. By contrast, the courtyard of  N’Kame’s small African home is done in earth tones brimming with warmth and welcome.

The same warmth comes through in the African background music assembled by composer Joe Cerqua. The contrasting music for St. Ives may best be described as “Industrial Bagpipe” and is every bit as jarring as its name suggests.

But the sets and sound are truly secondary to the remarkable performances of Madden and Dawson. Too often local professional theater is marred by superior performance and production joined with unworthy material. With “Going to St. Ives,” Forward has found a near-perfect blend of components, each of which helps the other rise to remarkable levels. For even the most casual theater buffs, this is a show not to be missed.

Forward Theater’s production of “Going to St. Ives” runs through March 19 in Promenade Hall at Madison’s Overture Center. Call 608-258-4141.

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