Most everyone knows who Henry VIII is, what he looks like, and that he married six times. Many Americans are even familiar with the tales of his second, and most infamous wife Anne Boleyn. Yet few know about his final spouse…until now.
Thanks to the research, wit and insights of playwright Kate Hennig, the often overlooked but nevertheless inspiring story of Katherine Parr comes to life in “The Last Wife,” which is currently enjoying its U.S. premiere at Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre.
The work is ideal for the company, which recently received a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, since TimeLine is devoted to staging historic topics that relate to the social and political issues of today. In this case, the focus is on women running countries. Or rather how women should run countries when they are clearly the most fit candidate for the job.
It’s the 16th century, and Henry VIII is ruling England with an iron fist, rotting leg and roving eye. After beheading wife number five, he sets his cap (make that crown) at Parr, who is about to become a widow for the second time and is romantically involved with the brother of Henry’s third ex-wife Jane Seymour. If that sounds operatic, it’s nothing compared to what comes next.
Considering his track record, Parr refuses the king but eventually, albeit reluctantly, weds him. Almost immediately after, she begins mending familial fences between her husband and his daughters Mary (from wife one) and Bess (from wife two). Parr is instrumental in laying the groundwork, both politically and scholastically, for her stepdaughters to follow in their father’s majestic footsteps even though it was unprecedented for British women to rule at the time.
Yet anyone with a lick of history will know these girls will grow to become Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Their stories will also be tackled by Hennig, who is currently writing “The Virgin Trial” and “Father’s Daughter” as part of her Queenmaker Trilogy.
For now, area audiences can witness TimeLine’s first-rate production of “The Last Wife” directed by Associate Artistic Director and seven-time Jeff Award-winner Nick Bowling. Under his leadership, Steve Pickering (Henry) and AnJi White (Katherine) share a dynamic chemistry and deliver compelling performances, as do the rest of the cast, including Paola Sanchez-Abreu (Mary), Nate Santana (Thomas Seymour), Caroline Heffernan and Peyton Shaffer (alternating as Bess) and Matthew Abraham and Chinguun Sergelen (alternating as Prince Edward).
Due to the play’s timeless theme, Regina Garcia’s sleek scenic design and Melissa Torchia’s simple yet regal costumes depict a contemporary setting. In fact, the production couldn’t be any more relevant unless one of Hillary Clinton’s signature pantsuits was thrown into the mix.
“The Last Wife” runs through Dec.18, 2016, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago. For tickets ($22-$51) and more information, visit timelinetheatre.com or call (773) 281-TIME (8463).