The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, directed by Paul Mullins, opened October 21 and runs through November 5, 2023. The story of Sir Thomas More, a man who not only has principles but sticks to them, seems a timely offering for our more elastic era. Of course, you may conclude that, in his case, that virtue went too far. Here a strong cast and excellent production provide much to consider.
Hewing closely to history, More (played by Thomas Michael Hammond) has become the Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII (Roger Clark). Henry is determined to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He has several reasons for this, but the most powerful may be that she has failed to produce a male heir. (Centuries later, science would prove that a child’s sex is determined by the father. Henry should have been looking in the mirror.) The Catholic Church, of course, opposes the divorce, and Spanish officialdom, represented by its emissary Sigñor Chapuys (Edward Furst), regularly pleads Catherine’s cause. More’s conscience won’t let him support the King’s plans, despite the loyalty he demonstrates by various other actions. Nor does he speak out against them.
The principal cast includes several additional notable characters, which the cast plays with great skill and gusto: the always a bit dodgy Duke of Norfolk (Anthony Marble), More’s devoted wife Alice (Mary Stillwaggon Stewart), his daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez) and her fiancé William Roper (Ty Lane), whose political views shift with every wind. Also, rising politician Richard Rich (Aaron McDaniel) demonstrates his convincing slipperiness, Thomas Cromwell is less admirable here than in Wolf Hall (James McMenamin), and “The Common Man,” (Kevin Isola). Isola makes the most of the array of often-comic characters he plays—More’s servant Matthew, a boatman, a publican, a juror, a jailer. His every appearance is welcome. Additional cast and production credits in my review at TheFrontRowCenter.
In general, a readiness to compromise or to achieve the King’s desired ends by whatever argument necessary characterizes Rich, Norfolk, and Cromwell, in direct contrast to More. The play challenges you to think about the role of a counselor. Is it solely to follow the leader’s dicta or is it to help a leader onto a more conciliatory and constructive path? For all his staunch refusals to speak out on the era’s great questions—the divorce and the establishment of the Church of England with the King at its head—More does have opinions about these matters. He simply believes his silence will protect him from accusations of treason. In my view, he’s splitting legal hairs too.
STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.