A Man for All Seasons

Timeline Theatre Company

Sir Thomas More wasn’t the first person to be put to death for his religious beliefs, but he was notable in that he was persecuted less for what he said than for what he didn’t say. A brilliant lawyer and thinker and above all a staunch Catholic, the lord chancellor of England undoubtedly disapproved of Henry VIII divorcing Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn–and even more of the Act of Succession, which declared Anne the legitimate queen and repudiated papal supremacy. But until More was convicted of treason, he was careful never to voice his objections. Instead, adhering to a painstaking reading of the act and a firm belief in the rule of law, he simply refused to sign any oath that would make Henry his spiritual sovereign. More relied on silence to save him.

A lawyer-hero whose weapon is ambiguity, More is a protagonist of a peculiarly modern stripe, his mode of attack being not a headlong hurtling into the breach but a kind of foxy legal quibbling. In his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt has More explain it this way: “God made the angels to show him splendor–as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! . . . Our natural business lies in escaping!”

Of course, ambiguity didn’t get More very far with a man like Henry VIII on the throne. You were either with him or against him. For all his trouble, More lost his head. With the help of Thomas Cromwell.

Director Edward Sobel seems to recognize the play’s relevance to our time, when men in power scorn subtlety and the rule of law, when opposition is taken for a lack of patriotism, and when legal argu-ments are put to no higher use than obfuscation. His staging for TimeLine Theatre Company abandons the stuffy conventions of British period drama–all the Masterpiece Theatre trappings. The actors don’t wear cloaks and tights but contemporary dress with a few 16th-century details thrown in. They speak with American accents. And Brian Sidney Bembridge’s remarkably versatile set–a parallelogram-shaped pool filled with water and an irregular wooden walkway–has Tudor accents but otherwise looks sleekly modern. It’s not that Sobel ignores the story’s historical context, but neither does he portray history as dead–or, worse, quaint.

Historical dramas sometimes use a kind of shorthand when it comes to Tudor characters. Henry VIII is the lusty, bone-gnawing monarch while Cromwell is a wicked, blustering bully and More is a gentle saint. But TimeLine’s performances have a vitality and complexity that indicate the performers have rethought their characters. There’s real menace to John Carter Brown’s Cromwell, who has his blustery, bullying moments but who can also be a sly, insinuating, Mametian salesman type. Brad Woodard as the king is a petulant child, but he also reveals the man’s very human desperation at not being able to produce a male heir. Janet Ulrich Brooks as Alice, More’s wife, is a put-upon, illiterate member of the lower aristocracy but also sensible and warm, with a sense of self almost as strong as her husband’s.

These performers discover previ-ously unexamined angles on their characters. David Parkes as More seems to attempt the same–certainly he wants to avoid playing More as an ultrapious milquetoast, which is good because More wasn’t one. But neither was he the jocular, robust man of action Parkes makes him out to be. In Paul Scofield’s canonical interpretation of the role in the acclaimed 1966 film, More has just the right combination of wit and gravitas–a sad-eyed, quiet dignity tinged with wry impudence. Scofield’s More is robust in an intellectual way, whereas Parkes’s scholar seems likely to favor a nice, bracing swim in the Atlantic over writing a book. His take on the role has a kind of cheeky charisma, but instead of being an outgrowth of More’s character it seems imposed on it.

What the play gains in energy it sometimes loses in grandeur. Instead of striking a subtle balance between recounting history and breathing new life into it, Sobel occasionally shifts too far from historical truth. Still, when Parkes does muster the gravity his role requires, this is a stirring, resonant production.

When: Through 12/18: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM. Also 4 PM Sat.

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington

Price: $10-$25

Info: 773-281-8463

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.