A Directorial Triumph and Flawless Cast Reign in Mary Stuart at The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Two women on stage in Elizabethean costume.
Sarah Cusenza as Mary Stuart and , Maria Ciarrocchi as Elizabeth I, Queen of England. (Photo: Matt Liptak)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Two women, two countries, two rulers, two religions. For Mary Stuart Queen of Scots (Sarah Cusenza), it becomes a fight for her life when she is imprisoned by her cousin Elizabeth I Queen of England (Maria Ciarrocchi). While in her cell Mary has only her faithful nursemaid Hanna Kennedy to confide in, Elizabeth has legions of lords acting as her councilors. That doesn’t prove to be as useful as one might imagine when we see how their self-serving machinations muddy Elizabeth’s resolve.

Bearden man talking to middle aged lady both in Elizabethean costume.
Paul Donahoe as George Talbot, Maria Ciarrocchi as Queen Elizabeth I, and Thomas O’Neill as Robert Dudley. (Photo by Matt Liptak)

In 1587 England is in a precarious state since Henry VIII divorced as a Catholic (Heaven forfend!) and converted to Protestantism. Wacky six-time wedded Henry even called his daughter Elizabeth a bastard child, but she wound up with the throne so sticks and stones didn’t throw shade on her after all. As for the never-married “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth, it seems she came away with some wisdom after witnessing the knavish ways of good old dad and decided to keep single. Plagued by the divergent views of her lords, she vacillates on what to do with Mary. Will it be more favorable to her reputation if she is seen to be sympathetic to Mary? Should she let her return unharmed to Scotland or show her the scaffold? If you know your history, you’ll know how that played out.

Set in the 16th century, the play draws from a Shakespearean style of drama to reflect the bloody history within castle walls. Conspiracy, double dealing, spying, jealousy and murder are all on the table in this riveting political drama by author Peter Oswald. As the conniving Lord Burleigh (John Henderson) tells Elizabeth when a plot to murder her is revealed, “You must kill or be killed.” But whom should Elizabeth trust among the flatterers and sycophants? She has already survived three assassination attempts on her life. Each woman feels trapped. Mary in prison and Elizabeth in obeisance to her countrymen, “O, appalling servitude,” she laments.

Middle-aged woman in Elizabethean costume on throne.
Maria Ciarrocchi is Queen Elizabeth I.(Photo by Matt Liptak)

We must remember how very young these women were when they took the throne. Elizabeth was 25 years old. At that time a woman had never reigned in England before. Mary was a mere six days old when her father James V of Scotland died, and she was the only living heir. Although she was brought up in the lap of luxury and culture in France, she returned to Scotland and ascended to the throne at a mere girl of 19. Both women so young and with extraordinary power.

Since the play centers around Mary, it must have a strong actress, one who will imbue her performance with deep emotion and the gravitas befitting her role as a queen. I was totally taken with the acting brilliance of Sarah Cusenza whose Scottish accent was spot on and who held the stage with tremendous aplomb.

Woman on her knees with courtiers in background.
Maria Ciarrocchi as Queen Elizabeth I, Sarah Cusenza as Mary Stuart, Sally Cusenza as Hannah Kennedy, Paul Donahoe as George Talbot. (Photo by Matt Liptak)

Mary Stuart is a powerful production, and it is flawless. You could hear a pin drop in the audience so fascinating are the story and the character’s interactions. Jaw-dropping period costumes by Juliana Cofrancesco, Abbie Mulberg, Carol Pappas and Robin Worthington coexist with Matt Liptak’s Elizabethan period set design to perfectly frame the pulsating action.

The Little Theatre has surprised this reviewer with yet another excellent production and a directorial triumph by Kathleen Barth who has assembled an impressive cast to manifest her vision.

Highly recommended.

With Jessie Roberts as Hanna Kennedy – played to perfection by Sally Cusenza on opening night; John Paul Odle as Mortimer; Kirk Lambert as Amias; John Henderson as William Cecil, Lord Burleigh; John Barclay Burns as Count Aubespine and Melvil; Richard Fiske as Count Bellievre and Kent; Paul Donahoe as George Talbot; Stuart Fischer as Dungeon Drury and William Davison; Thomas O’Neill as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Lee Swanson as Officer and Sheriff; Sam Beeson as O’Kelly and Page.

Dramaturg, Griffin Voltmann; Lighting Design by Matthew Cheney; Sound Design by Janice Rivera; Makeup and Hair Design by Robin Maline and Lanae Sterrett; Dialect Coach Hilary Adams.

Through May 13th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 703 683-0496.

See Other Local Theatre Reviews by Jordan Wright HERE.

Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright is a noted publisher and writer focused on food, spirits, travel, theatre and lifestyles.  Her writing can also be found on her personal website

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