Review of "Shakespeare's Will" - Love Hath a Way

Sheila McKenna as Anne Hathaway in "Shakespeare's Will" Credit: Jason Snyder, Image Treatment by BOOM Creativ

As an indication of my naivete and uninformed knowledge of Shakespeare, when I saw that Quantum Theatre is mounting a staging of Canadian playwright Vern Theissen's "Shakespeare's Will" I thought it was about one of his sons named Will.

But I'm not the only one who knows little about the great bard from Stratford-on-Avon. Despite his fame and renown, scholars have not much to go on when it comes to the details of his life.

Documentary evidence through such things as birth, death and marriage records and a copy of his last will and testament do provide some information. The playwright in his notes in the program gives some interesting tidbits like the fact that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was a mere 18 year old youth. Anne, on the other hand, was 8 years his senior on their wedding day and  pregnant

Of Anne, we know even less other than the fact that Shakespeare, in his will, left her his second-best bed. The best had been reserved for guests. His house went to his sister, Joan, with other items and money left to family and friends. But why poor Anne got so very little puzzled scholars, some of which came up with several postulates. 

Playwright Thiessen outlines his own in an enthralling one actor drama in which he admits to playing "fast and loose" with its meaning.

The play opens on the day of Shakespeare's funeral when Anne's handed the bard's will by his sister, Joan. This sparks her memory as she retells the story of their meeting at the fair, he a shy young lad, she a seasoned woman with a string of affairs, something she seems to be proud of rather than guilty and and remorseful.

Although the couple went on to have three children, two girls and a boy (named Hamnet, and no this is not a typo), they agreed to an open relationship, one that allowed him to have free rein away from home for long periods while he worked on his career in London. She seemed content to play the role of housekeeper and mother with hints of casual dalliances in between conjugal visits.

Sheila McKenna Credit:Jason Snyder, Image Treatment by BOOM Creative 

Sheila McKenna is absolutely mesmerizing in the role, plummeting the depths of emotion passionately in the retelling of her relationship with her husband. Humor, grief, tragedy, hopefulness and resilience find their way into the script as McKenna prowls the raised stage at the front of the West Homestead United Methodist Church, Quantum's latest venue, one of many on a long list of former sites.

Somehow in my mind's eye I pictured Anne as sweet and demure, an adoring wife to a brilliant husband. But McKenna plays the woman with such strength and vitality it almost comes as a shock. She seems a viable foil for the strength of his genius. At times, especially in one  mid-searing image that comes at the moment of her deepest grief, she has the aura of a legendary figure drawn  from classical Greek and Roman mythology. Think Medea, think Antigone, think Niobe.

Chapters in her story are effectively linked  by live violin music performed by Dawn Posey, who gracefully glides sylph-like through the audience and even adds a bit of silent theatricality several times when she reacts on stage to McKenna's monologue. 

In the playbook, Poset claims to have used source material solely from female composers such as Alma Mahler, the wife of Gustav, and Fanny Hensel, the wife of Felix Mendelssohn. Her choices are not only wonderful to listen to but apt for such a female-centric presentation.

In a nonspeaking role Simon Nigam portrays the couple's son, Hamnet, who provides the clue as to the reason for the puzzling and controversial second bed legacy.

Scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley keeps things simple and abstract, creating a luminescent blue backdrop surrounded by a sea nautilus that spirals across the wall and hits at the marine motif that punctuates the script. Her work is buttressed by C. Todd Brown's lighting designs, and Joe Seamans evocative projections. 

Shakespeare buffs should revel in snippet's of his poetry and song that find their way into the script. But in spite of the brilliant support provided by director Melanie Dreyer and the technical crew, McKenna is the shining star of the production. Her ninety minute monologue is so intense, passionate and finely drawn  it almost takes your breath away with the viewing.

Quantum Theatre's "Shakespeare's Will" is at the West Homestead United Methodist Church, 515 W. Eighth Street in Homestead through December 1. For tickets, phone 412-362-1713 or