THE HERBAL BED, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. What we know about Shakespeare's daughter Susanna is that she married John Hall, a Stratford physician and idealistic Puritan. Then, in 1613, after being accused of adultery with Rafe Smith, she sued her accuser for slander. From these scant facts British playwright Peter Whelan has fashioned a drama that argues persuasively for tolerance and against absolutism. Whelan assumes Susanna is innocent. Despite her loveless marriage, she adores John for his power to heal, while any alleged assignation with Rafe is a matter of appearance, not infidelity. But there's no easy road to salvation. To escape censure, Susanna must invent a white lie that protects her marriage as the unvarnished truth would not.
The leisurely first act dwells too much on Jacobean medicine and the characters' back stories, while the second act is crowded with incident, putting the valiant Halls through more tests than Pilgrim's Progress. Gary Griffin's staging embraces even the excess: what we get is much more interestingly ambiguous than the unsubtle slander that mauls innocence in The Winter's Tale and Much Ado About Nothing.
Despite the "blackness" Susanna says she has around her heart, Lisa Dodson seems a serenely useful doctor's wife. Scott Jaeck is integrity incarnate as John, Philip Earl Johnson a worthy temptation, and Joe Sikora achingly vulnerable as the boozing apprentice who stirs up the scandal. Most captivating is Marcia Reinhard, whose resourceful servant proves almost as inventive as the Bard himself.