Not that Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed, currently being offered by Stage West in Fort Worth, doesn't confront head-on the assumptions of gender -- it just shows how silly they are by revealing the humans underneath the social expectations. And the lead in The Herbal Bed could write an epic poem detailing the expectations of being a woman in 17th-century England. She's Susanna Hall (Diane Anglim), the daughter of William Shakespeare and the wife of John Hall (John Wayne Shafer), one of the most prominent medicinal herbalists of his time. She also happens to be an herbalist of great skill herself, mixing concoctions when her husband will allow or secretly, late at night. John is a man of impeccable professional standing, and has a detached affection for his many patients, but he's pretty much incapable of loving his wife in the erotic way she desires. When circumstances crash overhead -- she rejects an oafish medical student (Bart Myer), resumes a love affair with a widower patient of her husband's named Rafe Smith (Jeffrey Schmidt), and is caught mixing a treatment for gonorrhea on the sly -- she is dragged into the public arena.
Based on true (albeit heavily dramatized) historical accounts, The Herbal Bed does get damp with soapiness here and there in its tale of a repressed wife and her single-handed confrontation with the church tribunal. But Susan is no paper saint: In the play's most interesting philosophical conundrum, she must convince herself and her hesitant lover Rafe Smith that they indeed had no "carnal knowledge" of each other, when the easily spooked Smith knows that she's fudging on a technicality -- there was no penetration, just great physical affection and desire. Under director Jim Covault's typically expert cast, it's more than just the lies we tell for love, or another tale of a cheatin', deceivin' woman. When you're Shakespeare's daughter and possess talents, lusts, and ambitions of your own, you have to carve out the personal space for growth any way you can.