In the title role, Jessica Jane Witham is Sir Thomas More's daughter. Left: Daniel Myers as Will Roper.
A popular bumper sticker says that history is rarely made by well-behaved women. Meg, a historical drama about the daughter of Sir Thomas More, should take that aphorism a little more ardently to heart. Some misbehavior would have been welcome in Madison Theatre Guild's disappointingly bland production at the Bartell Theatre. Despite the best efforts of Jessica Jane Witham in the title role and some strong support from Judy Kimball as her sharp-tongued stepmother, Alice, the play barely totters along to its fateful conclusion.
Part of the fault lies in Paula Vogel's overwritten script (it clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours), although the text is not short of humorous intelligence as it draws a number of pointed parallels between the state of women in Tudor times and their modern counterparts. It's unfair to make comparisons with Robert Bolt's masterpiece A Man for All Seasons, because Vogel has focused her attention on More's daughter and not on the great man himself. But therein lies part of the problem.
The play tells us (repeatedly) that Meg is a renowned scholar and wit. (Sir Thomas was a revolutionary in that regard, teaching his daughter Latin and Greek, among other skills.) But although Meg's agile mind is certainly evident, she so readily acquiesces to men who are depicted as her intellectual inferiors that her reputation is hard to believe. This is all the more frustrating because the actors portraying those men (Mark Snowden, John Siewert, Dan Myers) are, themselves, so ineffective. The cause is not helped by director Joan Brooks, who seems to be terrified of letting her actors settle in one spot for more than a few seconds. She needs to learn the power of stillness.
The play is salvaged by Meg and Alice, who share several intimate scenes in which they reflect on their place as mothers, daughters and wives. The two maintain a cautious, though grudgingly affectionate distance, but they tease out the strands of their common experience as strong women who are forced to become bystanders in their own lives. Witham and Kimball do a fine job of letting us observe aspects of themselves that they never reveal to their respective husbands. Meg says that men become martyrs with their deaths, while women become martyrs with their lives, which may be a little glib, but it's hard to argue with in this context.
Excellent lighting by Tom Littrell and some authentic period music help to create a suitably moody atmosphere, but it's not enough.