Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Last Wife
After her second husband, John Neville, starts to fall ill, Kate (Allison Spratt Pearce) meets the intimidating Henry (Manny Fernandes). Although at first uncertain whether she wants to marry the king, she soon agrees to be his sixth wife. Kate eventually becomes close to two of his children from previous marriages, Bess (Kylie Acuña) and Eddie (Bobby Chiu and Giovanni Cozic, who alternate during certain performances). While their partnership has periods of happiness, Henry isn't the nicest of husbands. His violent and mood-changing behavior leads to a lot of ups and downs for the couple.
What drives a lot of the tension and drama in Hennig's plot is the union of Kate and Henry. Their conversations have a backdrop of suspense, especially as his previous marriages had ended in divorce, death or beheadings. Since Kate is acutely aware of this, she tries everything possible to earn Henry's trust and love. The ever-changing relationship is chilling, mainly because of the performances from Pearce and Fernandes. Pearce highlights Kate's ever-growing power, while Fernandes presents a Henry who can be generous, sentimental and funny in a self-deprecating way. It's the stars' human touches that allow the pair to stand out.
Just as intelligently fleshed out are Henry's two polar-opposite daughters, Bess (who becomes Queen Elizabeth 1) and Mary (the future Mary, Queen of Scots, played by Cashae Monya). As the play progresses, Bess and Mary begin to show how Kate starts to affect their lives. All of the roles are well performed, although the one person whose dialogue isn't always as consistent is Kate's lover Thom (Steven Lone). While Lone is well cast and brings suave confidence to the role, Hennig's writing for him doesn't feel too different from that of a lot of other forbidden romances. To Hennig's credit, Thom does become very interesting in the final part of the play as he starts to spend a significant amount of time at Henry and Kate's home.
Complementing Henning's writing is the behind-the-scenes team led by Associate Artistic Director Rob Lutfy, directing. He stages scenes that range from important political discussions and negotiations to intimate conversations. Lutfy's combination of bigger and smaller moments are punctuated by Chris Rynne's lighting and Kevin Anthenill's original score. These artists know when to scale back their contributions, and also when to build up dramatic situations. Sean Fanning's set and Veronica Murphy's costumes present visuals that wouldn't feel out of place in a dark political television series like "House of Cards."
Parallels between the Netflix series and Cygnet's rendition of The Last Wife aren't just because of the look of the piece. Like the character Claire Underwood, Kate uses her smarts to become as strong, if not more, than her husband. This is the main reason why the material works for all kinds of audiences. It's motivating to see Kate's growth from the play's opening to its climatic moments. Even though men should be entertained by how Hennig dramatizes Kate's empowering journey, women are going to especially be affected by the personal struggles with Henry that she is able to overcome.
Lutfy and the artists on and off stage have crafted a clever and occasionally sensual historical drama. Hennig might take creative liberties, but The Last Wife is an example of why history should never be forgotten.
Cygnet Theatre presents The Last Wife, Sundays through Saturdays through February 11, 2018, at 4040 Twiggs St, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $38.00 and can be purchased online at www.cygnettheatre.com or by phone at 1-619-337-1525.