Book a stirring read

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Brendan O'Neill and Cleveland Nicoll in "The Book of Will"(photo-Tim Gurczak)
Brendan O'Neill and Cleveland Nicoll in "The Book of Will"(photo-Tim Gurczak)

The Book of Will, Hub Theatre Company, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through November 12. Pay what you can.

For John Heminges and Henry Condell, ''To be or not to be" had as much to do with the First Folio as with "Hamlet." It may be no exaggeration to say that this authoritative 1623 edition of 36 plays would never have come into being without the determined and unflagging efforts of these Lions of the Boards.

Accomplished playwright Lauren Gunderson ("Silent Sky") has dramatized their devoted collaboration in "The Book of Will"—a richly detailed play that not only honors Shakespeare and the greatest theatrical achievement in the English language but also evokes his colleagues' professional and personal challenges. Thanks to gifted director Bryn Boice (a recent strong all-female "Julius Caesar"), an inspired Hub Theatre Company edition brings the Heminges-Condell collaboration to vivid life at the Boston Center for the Arts.

"The Book of Will" smartly begins three years after the playwright's death (1616) in a London where 'mice' are attempting to play 'lions' in pathetic performances that make a mockery of Shakespeare. Heminges, Condell and iconic Globe Theatre actor Richard Burbage (who would die in 1619)—concerned about the authenticity of the Bard's canon—know that the true texts could vanish if not published. Preferring a high quality folio to cheap quartos, Heminges and Condell agree to create a collection on fine paper with exacting Ed Crane as its editor.

As Gunderson presents Heminges and Condell, they are a striking study in contrast. Heminges comes across as a reserved financial manager, where Condell—who speaks of being Will's best friend—seems more ready to take risks to realize their objectives. At the same time, the two colleagues display the kind of easy mutual affection common to bros nowadays. Condell will even offer to kiss Crane in appreciation of his considerable efforts.

Eventually the First Folio begins to come together as a variety of factors bear fruit. Rival poet-playwright Ben Jonson agrees to write a preface—in which he calls Will "Soul of the age", and Lady Emilia Lanier—often identified by scholars as the Dark Lady of several Shakespeare sonnets—makes a significant financial contribution. Publisher Isaac Jaggard commits to an "unrivaled collection of unrivaled plays," and Crane right insists on no alterations to the texts of the plays.

Designer Peyton Tavares has brilliantly constructed a surrounding set piece that allows audience members to see characters moving to and fro in the background and enables the collaborating compilers to hang up folio pages—with kudos to designer Ted Kearnan for evoking the sound of the printing.

A first-rate cast captures both the deep feeling and rich ideas of Gunderson's writing. Brendan O'Neill has all of Heminges' uncommon attention to the plays and tenderness with his supportive wife Rebecca—played with conviction and caring by Laura Rocklyn. Cleveland Nicoll combines fiery enthusiasm for the Folio and affecting brotherly love for Heminges as Condell.

Dev Luthra moves with crisp authority through memorable lines from the plays as Burbage, and John Blair has the right combination of ego and boozy individuality as Jonson. Lauren Elias is properly empathetic as Heminges' daughter Alice. Jeremy Beazlie has Isaac's strong will and professional pride, and Josh Telepman captures Crane's unwavering principle. Jessica Golden has Elizabeth Condell's warmth, and Robert Thorpe II amuses as an inept actor.

For Condell, stories are real in their own way. The same can be heartily said of Hub Theatre Company's wonderfully stirring "The Book of Will."