Theatre

Saturday, 01 October 2016 18:53

The Last Wife Keeps Its Head

The tumultuous personal life of the six-time married Henry VIII has been an inspiration for dramatists for centuries, and provided immortal fame to several of his ill-fated wives. However, as the wife who had the political astuteness to survive him and the luck to marry him after he had already produced his long-awaited male heir, Katherine Parr has usually been neglected due to her apparent lack of tragedy. That changed last year, when Canadian actress and playwright Kate Hennig’s new work, The Last Wife, premiered at the Stratford Festival. Narrowly focused on six richly drawn characters, Hennig’s play is a reminder of how remarkable Parr truly was, and that her political power stemmed from her ability to reconcile one of the English-speaking world’s most notoriously fractured families. In the play’s United States debut at Timeline Theatre, director Nick Bowling’s cast teases out the nuances of Hennig’s complex script, creating a surprisingly compassionate image of a court known mainly for its beheadings.

The play is in modern dress and language, with elegantly simple costumes by Melissa Torchia and a matching silver and black set by Regina Garcia. Katherine Parr (AnJi White) is a social-climbing noblewoman with a dying husband she never liked, and a handsome admirer in the highly desirable Thom Seymour (Nate Santana). However, at the top of the play, she is troubled by the gift King Henry (Steve Pickering) has made to her of a dazzling necklace. It is a clear indication that he wishes to make her wife number six, and to refuse his gift is even more dangerous than to accept it. Henry himself makes that clear when he interrupts the couple by forcibly kissing Katherine and humiliating Thom by pretending to forget his lack of title and pointing out his inability to protect “his” woman. Catherine makes a counteroffer of becoming Henry’s mistress, but he refuses, and surprises her by declaring that his interest in her is primarily due to his belief that the young prince Edward (Chinguun Sergelen, alternating with Matthew Abraham) needs a mother.

Katherine, or, as she prefers to be called, Parr, recognizes several opportunities. The king is ailing, and is in need of advisers, and possibly a regent. Furthermore, if she maneuvers correctly, she could place herself in a position to mentor his older daughters, Mary (Paola Sanchez Abreu) and Bess (Caroline Heffernan, alternating with Peyton Shaffer), whom he is currently estranged from due to abusing, and in Bess’s case, murdering their mothers. Parr would like to see more women in positions of power, and the first step to making that happen is to restore the girls to the line of succession. White possesses the strength and the warmth to communicate that Parr is a mixture of high ambition and idealism, with a long-disappointed hope of starting a family of her own. She craves power enough that she is willing to take grave risks to gain it, seeks it for others as well as herself, and, perhaps unexpectedly, finds herself falling for the Tudors even as she tries to negotiate her suddenly much more complex relationship with Thom. White’s astute choices regarding when to be vulnerable and when to be commanding make her a fascinating figure, and the driving force of the play.

She’s in good company. Steve Pickering’s Henry is a sardonic, miserable, but highly intelligent and dangerous old monster. “I’m capricious; that makes me a fascist, not a liberal,” he declares early on in what is also an example of Hennig’s generally strong ability to describe Renaissance dynamics in modern language. (It’s not perfect; everything onstage is contemporary, but the characters still refer to cannons.) Henry cannot be tricked by false affection, but Parr is old enough to remember there was a time when he was a genuine sex symbol, and still has lingering admiration for the person he was when he took the throne as a teenager. Henry misses that person, too. Santana’s charming, but somewhat feckless Thom is depicted more sympathetically than the historical character usually is, as is Sanchez’s wounded and sour Mary. Heffernan’s Bess starts very guarded, but grows to reveal her intellect as well as her insecurities. Sergelen’s Edward is an innocent who has an adorable tendency to get underfoot at awkward moments, one of which implies early on that Parr and Thom may be a little sleazier than we’ve been led to believe.

Hennig is too clever a writer to make The Last Wife a morally simplistic story. Her characters are messy, and she treats her audience as people who don’t need to be preached to. At two and a half hours, The Last Wife is unusually dense and lengthy for a new play, and at times, Hennig’s style seems suited for a novel. There are a few big dramatic scenes, but most of the character development takes place through quieter moments during which they are clearly thinking more than they say. For example, while discussing Edward’s succession, Bess takes a tactless tone while pointing out that seventy percent of males in their family die before the age of eighteen. Mary responds with a veiled comparison between Bess and Richard III. But Bowling has done such a fine job of casting and pacing that the story never drags (and for those who absolutely prefer something shorter, Timeline’s production of Bakersfield Mist will be continuing through mid-October). For fans of the Tudor era, as well as people who enjoy intimate studies of ambitious families, The Last Wife is highly recommended.

The Last Wife is playing at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave through December 18. For tickets or show information, see timelinetheatre.com.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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