A captivating Olivia Saccomanno rules the stage as Queen Katherine Parr in Kate Hennig’s fascinating feminist take on The Last Wife (of Henry VIII), now getting its Los Angeles Premiere at Theatre 40 in a production not quite ready for its Opening Night.
Canadian actor/playwright Hennig combines (in her own words) the “deliciously accurate,” the “completely and utterly fabricated,” and a contemporary setting, vernacular, and point of view to make 16th-century English history come alive to a 21st-century audience.
Both Hennig and Saccomanno make it clear from the get-go that Henry (David Hunt Stafford) will have his hands full marrying the already twice-wed, half-his-age Kate, a young woman who’d much rather be mistress than wife (though she eventually gives in on condition that sex take place only at her instigation), then insists Henry once again recognize his “bastard” daughters Mary (Nathalie Rudolph) and Bess (Lily Daugherty) as heirs to the throne.
Also figuring in the action is Kate’s once-and-present lover Thomas Seymour (Caleb Slavens), hunky younger brother of Jane, aka Wife Number Three, whose six-year-old son Prince Edward (Andrew Grigorian) is first in the line of succession.
Much as James Goldman did in The Lion In Winter, Hennig turns historical fact (and a playwright’s fabrication) into drama so rich in family intrigue, it could easily serve as a model for any number of nighttime soaps, particularly given its contemporary language, costuming, and conspicuous absence of English accents.
Add to that a lead character more than ready to take the reins when her monarch hubby (a man not all that different from a president in power and a movie producer in disgrace) heads off to battle, leaving a woman behind as regent, and you’ve got a play whose relevance its writer could hardly have imagined when it made its pre-Donald, pre-#metoo debut in August of 2015.
As the recent Late Company and Sequence made clear, Theatre 40 is at its best when making daring (and perhaps coincidentally Canadian) choices, or at least the company will be assuming supporting performances end up gelling as they had not on Opening Night.
Though Stafford clearly relishes sinking his teeth into Henry, his work remains tentative. 14-year-old Daugherty makes for a lovely Bess, but Rudolph isn’t yet entirely in command of the steely Mary, Slavens could do more to give Thomas more fire, and Grigorian would be better as Edward minus the child-actor posing.
There can be no quibbles however about leading lady Saccomanno’s radiant star turn, one that combines beauty and brains and glamour and gumption in a role that, to the production’s distinct advantage, has her front and center virtually throughout.
Director Flint Esquerra makes imaginative use of Jeff G. Rack’s regal, multi-locale set (the “Murphy bed” is a particularly nifty touch), meriting bonus points for staging tableaux that ensure seamless scene changes.
Brandon Baruch’s lighting and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound don’t take flight till Act Two, when the former’s dramatic light-and-shadows effects and the latter’s musical underscoring give the production a cinematic feel that it could benefit from earlier on.
Michèle Young’s costume choices reflect the characters she’s clothing, but the women at least deserve several changes instead of the single outfit each is allotted.
The Last Wife is produced by Stafford and dedicated to the memory of Bruce Gray. Richard Carner is stage manager.
With material as strong as Kate Hennig’s script and a leading lady as mesmerizing as Olivia Saccomanno, The Last Wife has the potential to be one of Theatre 40’s best. On Opening Night, at least, that potential remained not yet realized.