DeGannes illuminates a labored "Last Wife"

LENOX — Women rule in more ways than one in WAM Theatre's fitful production of Kate Hennig's lumbering, labored drama, "The Last Wife," which opened over the weekend at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

The play focuses on Katherine Parr, the last of King Henry VIII's six wives and the only one to survive him. As painted by Hennig and brought to life, and how, by a luminous Nehassaiu deGannes, this contemporary-toned woman comes with a toolbox overflowing with wiles, guile, determination, resourcefulness and enormous compassion as she ascends from reluctant bride to a position of power and influence as Henry's bold, risk-taking queen. As she secures her place, a defiant, proud Henry (a superficial, at best, John Hadden) feels the increasing pull of mortality and begins receding into twilight, a shadow of himself, barking, howling, raging against the dying of the light.

As played by deGannes, Katherine is a smart, articulate woman trying to make the best of a formidable, unaccommodating situation which she does her best to turn to her advantage if she is to stand any chance not just of surviving, but thriving.

Her marriage to Henry begins as a business arrangement; a contract of convenience rather than the heart, although as time and "The Last Wife" passes, she comes to regard Henry with compassion, understanding and a kind of genuine love and respect. No where is that turn more clear and affecting than a scene between the two of them, late in the play, when, in the intimacy of the bedchamber, she soothes Henry, who has just returned from war in France, of wounds and pains that are as much the effect of time and the life he has lived, his disappointments and frustrations, as they are the result of battle.

Katherine is not unencumbered. She is a woman in a man's world. She has outlived two husbands, will wed a fourth after Henry's death and, in the meanwhile, has an incipient lover and husband in an ambitious naval officer named Thom (a hard-working David Joseph, who struggles to find a richer palette than he's been given by Hennig), who Henry accurately perceives as a rival for Katherine.

As part of the terms with Henry, Katherine is to take over the tutoring of the precocious (as played by Raoul Silver) 10-year-old Edward VI, the heir to the throne; Eddie, as he is called. She also takes on responsibility for the two princesses — the impossibly petulant, tantrum-throwing, needy, teenage Bess (effectively Alicia Piemme Nelson) and the headstrong, resentful, cynical, emotionally guarded Mary (a pitch-perfect Lily Linke). One of Hennig's neater turns in "The Last Wife" is to set Mary and Bess up as a far cry from the temperaments that will gain Bess the throne and firm, authoritative control over Britain and send Mary to her death in civil war against Bess.

Indeed, the intricate dynamics in the relationship among Katherine, Mary and Bess gives the draggy second half of this production life and spine.

DeGannes, who was so radiant and captivating in Shakespeare & Company's "Or," in its 2016 season, drives "The Last Wife" in a beautifully nuanced performance that catches Katherine's insecurity even as she is making her way to the top. This Katherine is a quick learner — inventing the wheel; finding ways to balance her own needs with those of the kingdom. She is stubborn and determined; smart enough to play the game when she has to even if she views those moments as distasteful, at best.

Hadden's grasping, lurching performance gives deGannes little to work with for any sustainable period. There is a subtle, intricate dynamic between these two as Henry makes a journey that brings him, near the end of his life, to a place that is more profound, more vulnerable than he would ever willingly acknowledge. But Hadden depicts rather than delves in a hit-and-miss performance that essentially leaves deGannes on her own in their scenes together.

The static staging of the opening scenes is emblematic of a production that struggles to gain sustainable traction. At a running time of 2 hours, including intermission, "The Last Wife" feels much longer. For her part, however, deGannes makes it all seem so seamless and effortless.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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