LENOX — Anne Hathaway, the all-but-invisible wife of William Shakespeare, finally gets to speak her piece in “Shakespeare’s Will.’’ If only she had more interesting things to say.
Because Anne is a historical riddle about whom very little is known, Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen was free to fill in a lot of blanks when he crafted this 2005 solo play. But Thiessen didn’t make sufficient use of that freedom.
Kristin Wold is currently portraying Anne in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Shakespeare’s Will,’’ directed by Daniela Varon. Wold is too talented for there not to be a few engrossing moments, but she’s battling the limitations of an arch and mannered script, and the strain shows. The end result is that Anne remains indistinct and somewhat generic.
Even more fuzzy is Shakespeare himself, whom we see through the prism of Anne’s recollections of their marriage on the day of his funeral. Yes, “Shakespeare’s Will’’ is built on the not-unwarranted theory that the Bard was an absence rather than a presence in the lives of his wife and children. Yes, Thiessen’s monologue is designed to tell, or rather to imagine, Anne’s story, and by extension the stories of countless other women unfairly constrained by their times and subsequently forgotten by history.
But surely the greatest English language writer of all time deserves a more vivid characterization than the dull, monosyllabic (!) fellow created by Thiessen, who uncorked little of the luxuriously freewheeling creativity that Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard brought to bear on their screenplay for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love.’’
The title of Thiessen’s play alludes to Shakespeare’s infamous last will and testament, in which the Bard mystifyingly bequeathed “my second-best bed,’’ and very little else, to the woman he was married to for more than 30 years. That suggested, though it did not prove, a wide gulf between husband and wife, who spent relatively little time together: Will mostly lived in London, chasing immortality, while Anne remained in Stratford, raising their three children: Judith, Susanna, and Hamnet, who died when he was 11.
In “Shakespeare’s Will,’’ the couple appear to have something of an open marriage; the play depicts Anne as taking numerous lovers. Yet there’s also a strong sense of estrangement. Thiessen speculates that Will’s interest was captured by a man. Another, darker event has been invented by the playwright to explain that “second-best bed’’ business. Thiessen’s play does not shed much light on the wider mystery of the relationship between Will and Anne, though.
Will was only 18 and Anne was 26 or 27 when they met, an encounter that, in “Shakespeare’s Will,’’ takes place at, where else, a play. The young Shakespeare is an implausibly terse fellow; “A man of few words, I think,’’ Anne tells us dryly. Her father, a wealthy farmer, is incensed when she gets pregnant by, then marries, this son of a glove-maker. Tellingly, Will does not give her a ring at their wedding. He does write her a love poem, though his comment about it — “One day I shall write better’’ — suggests his aspirations were literary rather than romantic.
Soon, he’s off to London, promising to return in six months, but decades would pass before he finally returned to Stratford for good. Patrick Brennan’s set emphasizes Anne’s solitude and her distance from her husband, geographic and otherwise. Scraps of paper hang above a simple blue table; they are very short letters from Will, which Anne reads aloud. At the rear is an upright bed where Wold reenacts conversations between Anne and Will on the rare occasions when he returns home.
“Shakespeare’s Will’’ belongs to a genre that might be called in-the-shadow-of-genius, as writers seek to bring into the light the stories of those eclipsed by celebrated lovers, family members, friends, or rivals. Another solo play, Sylvia Milo’s “The Other Mozart,’’ about Mozart’s talented but overlooked sister Maria Anna, is currently playing in New York.
The built-in problem with this genre, of course, is that what draws us to the material is the famous person in the title. But we know that justice demands that we hear the other side of the story, or an imagined version of it. That side needs to be told more compellingly than it is “Shakespeare’s Will,’’ however.