Manny Fernandes and Allison Spratt Pearce in "The Last Wife." Photo courtesy of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife is not so much a deconstruction of history as it is, in the words of playwright Kate Hennig, a reimagining of the people who made it. It’s also a potboiler of a historical drama set in contemporary trappings with howling ambition, lusting and assorted machinations enough for a full season of “Dynasty” (the ‘80s original, not the lame current revival). That is not to diminish a production that under Rob Lutfy’s skilled direction of a superb cast is both thoughtful and intelligent, and which is neither undercut by its scarcely contained emotion nor its didactics.
The “last wife” of the title is the remarkable Katherine Parr, or Kate, who reluctantly married King Henry VIII but who in her four years as his queen brought a dignity and shrewdness to the monarchy that were sorely missing under Henry’s brash, oft-tyrannical reign. She also facilitated a reconciliation between the king and his two daughters by previous wives, Mary and Elizabeth (Bess), and was responsible for their being restored to the line of succession, an act that would change the course of English history. The Last Wife determinedly mines the depths of Kate’s complex relationships: with Henry, with the three children (including Jane Seymour’s young son, Edward) and with her lover and future husband Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother.
Allison Spratt Pearce is strength and luminosity personified as Kate in an inspired portrayal that, as the play intends, reverberates with the here and now. Manny Fernandes, in a highly physical performance, is more than up to the ferocity and repugnance of Henry VIII. Cashae Monya’s Mary is the most audacious character in The Last Wife, with 14-year-old Kylie Acuna intuitive beyond her years as Bess, and Steven Lone a lustful Thom who’s prone to petulance.
Cygnet’s staging could do without the accompanying “tension music” in a couple of confrontations, and here and there the 2015 script’s nods to currency are a bit wink-wink. But this production is by turns sensual, ferocious and even contemplative, and it is lengthy and well-paced enough to contain all the heat and reflection of its extraordinary characters. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/24/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.