‘Last Will’ Shows Shakespeare’s Less Romantic Side (Four Stars)

“The Last Will”, presented by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University. Written by Robert Brustein; Directed by Steve Maler; At The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, 525 Washington Street in Boston’s Theatre District, through February 24th. www.commshakes.org

The process of aging is sometimes less than kind to even the most revered of our cultural icons, particularly those that have lived a life that leaves them nothing at the end but overwhelming doses of guilt and remorse. Ask any number of the rich and famous (and “ordinary” folks, too) what they regret the most at the end of their lives and frequently the response is that they neglected the people that should matter most – like family. That would certainly appear to be the case with William Shakespeare, who despite writing so brilliantly about the nature of love and life for the stage didn’t seem to be a very loving character in his own life, especially towards the sad ending. The source of much of his guilt, according to author Robert Brustein’s take on the playwright’s final days, is that the Bard was a something of a turd in the husband and father department. He had plenty of love for those around him, just not as much for those who shared his own last name.

The play opens with Shakespeare (an appropriately weary Allyn Burrows) returning from London to retire in his Stratford home and re-unite with his long-neglected wife Anne Hathaway. In the first scene, she alludes to his long absences from the family as he pursued his writing and acting career (which included not even attending his own 11-year old son’s funeral). He soon turns the tables on her, by falsely accusing her of infidelity with his younger brother Gilbert, and he sets on changing his last will and testament in an attempt to cut her out of it for her alleged transgressions. Fueling his rage is at least a touch of madness (brought on by an early onset of dementia or a prolonged case of syphilis) as he continually calls his wife and children by the names of various characters from his works.

His poor is wife is not the only one who feels his wrath, as younger daughter Judith is about to marry a gentleman whom he does not approve of, and she too may get her share of his inheritance reduced. That leaves his daughter Judith, who has become a religious zealot (and by definition – a hypocrite), to receive the remainder of Shakespeare’s holdings once he kicks off, but she may be in cahoots (and having an affair with) the very lawyer who is preparing the will. Richard Burbage (popular Boston actor Jeremiah Kissel), leader of Shakespeare’s acting company (as well as the Bard’s drinking and debauchery buddy), comes to Stratford to persuade him to come back to London to write and perform more plays, but ends up serving as more of a buffer to keep him from abusing his family any worse than he already has.

The production is the world premiere of the final installment of Brustein’s trilogy about the life of William Shakespeare, and represents the first indoor presentation by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, who produce the excellent “Free Shakespeare on the Common” annually. The performance is well staged at The Modern Theatre – a cozy, completely refurbished 185-seat space built in 1914. The three level set is spare and designed to re-create the Old Globe Theater, and the players make good use of the space. The cast is uniformly solid, led by Burrows’ Shakespeare. He is particularly effective when he is full of controlled rage, and clearly demonstrates what a finely honed and barbed tongue can do to inflict pain on undeserving recipients when he unloads on those around him. Brooke Adams (the only actor in the production without classical Shakespeare training but still wonderful) is convincing and sympathetic as Shakespeare’s put upon wife, and Kissel is terrific as Shakespeare’s confidant. The rest of the cast (Stacy Fischer as Judith Shakespeare, Merritt Janson as Susanna Shakespeare and Billy Meleady as Francis Collins) delivers top notch performances as well.

Following the world premiere, “Last Will” will make its New York debut at the Abingdon Theatre Company Off-Broadway in April, with Tony nominee Austin Pendleton directing. For more, see www.commshakes.org.