A clash of church, state and conscience drives Robert Bolt’s “A Man For All Seasons.”
This historical drama won acclaim as both a play and film in the 1960s, and it retains its cautionary power today. New York’s Fellowship for Performing Arts has revived the play in a thoughtful production on Theatre Row.
Though no mention of 2019 America is made (or needed), this showdown of brute power, government bureaucracy and principle evokes echoes throughout history.
It’s a universal tale, in its way, of one man up against The Man. The loner against the mob. The individual versus the state. Commoner versus the king.
And here, what a king — Henry VIII.
The time is 1526, and the Lord Chancellor Thomas More is caught in an escalating dynastic challenge from the young monarch. Trent Dawson plays the king with just the right touch of charm, menace and rage.
Henry wants sons, and a wife to bear them. And “A Man For All Seasons” illuminates a crucial juncture in Henry’s long, brutal campaign to sire a suitable heir.
Under Christa Scott-Reed’s assured direction, a cast of 10 portrays a range of characters who depend upon More’s responses to an increasing pressure of royal demands. As the bonds of family, church, state and friendship impact More, his intellect and faith are tested in a showdown that ultimately puts his life at stake.
Michael Countryman portrays Sir Thomas More in a nimble and thoughtful portrait. This gifted actor layers More’s intellect, caution, wit and faith into a compelling character. He maintains a dignified, understated center as the caprice of the king, and the hypocrisy of diplomats and clerics ramp up the pressure.
What Henry wants is a divorce, and More’s approval. More’s prudent silence is perceived as a threat to the throne. Bolt underscores the historic pivot which follows by including More’s family in the deadly equation of private lives and public service.
Carolyn McCormick and Kim Wong plays More’s wife and daughter, respectively, in a touching domestic counterpoint to the grinding mechanics of church and kingdom.
In contrast to the intrigues of the high and mighty, Bolt adds the frankly theatrical character of the Common Man, who functions in a variety of secondary roles, all the while commenting on the unfolding action. His recitation of the actual fates of the historical characters involved is a highpoint in the irony woven through Harry Bouvy’s deft performance.
John Ahlin and Todd Cerveris also shine as powerful allies of the king.
The Common Man also manipulates the dressings of Steven C. Kemp’s skeletal scene design, a simple device to briskly set the time and place. Theresa Squire’s costume design complements the production’s steady balance.
The emphasis here is on context — how to reconcile one’s faith with the whims of fortune and traditional duty. Some men and women ride the tide, and others see a higher calling.
“A Man For All Seasons” makes its case, balancing the rich complexity of ideals with the stark options of choice.