By now, we all know that new laws have been enacted which allow the first born, whether male or female, of the reigning heir to the British monarchy to be named that person’s successor. This new move to equality of the sexes when it comes to being named the “crown” was perhaps initially started by Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII, who he made Queen Regent when he went off to war (allowing her to rule in his place). Parr then took it upon herself to have his daughters Mary and Elizabeth (Bess) added to the line of succession should their younger half-brother and heir apparent, Edward, die without any legal heirs to assume the “crown.” That move led to advancing their status as women of royal privilege as more than just a piece of property to be used as a bargaining chip for royal alliances through marriage.
In Canadian playwright Kate Hennig’s play THE LAST WIFE, now playing at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, we are taken inside a fascinating what-if imagining of the Tudors in the 21st Century, centering on the story of King Henry VIII and his final wife, the wealthy widow Katherine Parr. Directed with clarity by Flint Esquerra, longtime artistic director of the MET Theatre, the play centers on Parr’s royal life as she actively plays a role in being the stepmother and educational guide to Henry’s three surviving children, Edward, Mary and Bess.
Of course, there has to be a bit of royal scandal since Katherine’s marriage to Henry interrupts her ongoing affair with nobleman and soldier Edward Seymour, brother to Henry’s wife Jane Seymour who died giving birth to Edward, the heir apparent. But given Henry’s track record with wives, will Katherine’s head remain upon her shoulders once the affair is discovered?
This modern re-telling on an amazing Beverly Hills-type mansion set created by Jeff G. Rack has the actors in modern and rather sedate costumes created by Michèle Young in various shades of muted lavender and navy blue, with princess Mary in a simple black dress and Bess in a more feminine white frock. All actors speak with American accents, making the story and character development easy to follow.
And what a troupe of actors Esquerra has assembled to bring this tale to life! David Hunt Stafford, Theatre 40’s Artistic/Managing Director not only produces the production but plays the blustery King Henry VIII as an aging monarch still trying to use his last bit of sexual charm to entice the lovely Katherine Parr to be his wife. Parr is played to perfection by Olivia Saccomanno as a woman accustomed to Royal life who longs to bring a more important role for women into reality. The back-and-forth discussions and battles between the two take on a real modern feel when it comes to how she manages to be the power behind the throne without threatening his manhood on a daily basis. Her long-time lover and eventual husband after Henry’s death, Thomas Seymour, is played by handsome Theatre 40 favorite Caleb Slavens. The heat between the two ignites the stage with their passion, allowing us to understand why Parr would even consider risking her life to be with him.
Special kudos to the three children who each take on such important roles in this production and do them so authentically. Nathalie Rudolph portrays Mary, the eldest, as a very opinioned traditionalist who struggles to accept the more modern leanings of her younger sister Bess, portrayed by the 14-year old Lily Daugherty as an energetic would-be party girl. Young Andrew Grigorian takes on the role of Eddie as a precocious child who knows the responsibilities he will have to soon assume but still manages to enjoy just being a kid wanting to play with his sisters. The three really do seem to love each other, often displaying an “us against them” outlook surrounding the shenanigans involving their father’s love life.
The centuries may pass, but patriarchy and the fight for gender equity remain alive and well in the present day, reflected with even more outspoken support during the Women’s Marches taking place across the county as I write this. Beyond the political relevance of Hennig’s brilliantly written narrative, THE LAST WIFE is a lively examination of romantic love, family love, and duty which will always remain relevant as the years pass.