“A sad tale’s best for winter.” So says six- or seven-year-old Prince Mamillius, the darling, ill-fated son of King Leontes and Queen Hermione, of Sicily. The line comes from Shakespeare’s late romantic tragicomedy, “The Winter’s Tale,” a highly allegorical fairy tale, jam-packed with life’s fundamental lessons, which will end The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2018 season late this month. Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte masterfully presides the production (seen Saturday evening, December 8), eking from it every ounce of agony and bliss.

This deeply moving cautionary tale gives us the frightful chance to see how our closest friendships—our very families—can be destroyed when a paranoiac’s jealous suspicions become “alternative facts.” This production blazes with white-hot intensity, pulling the heart in every direction at once.

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Compelling leads

Erin Partin is Hermione, Queen of Sicilia, and exudes quiet dignity when thrust into the worst circumstances. Jon Barker is her King Leontes. Very early in Act I, Leontes out-Othellos Othello himself, careening in a split second from doting to paranoically jealous husband. His abruptly sickened mind invents infidelity between virtuous Hermione and honorable Polixenes, his best friend since childhood.

Are his wild claims true? Though baseless, they are true merely because he says so (sound familiar nowadays?). His flimsy circumstantial evidence trumps every credible defense, even divine intervention by Apollo’s oracle at Delphos. Jon Barker plays the neurotic and the repentant widower as if they were a real part of him. Erin Partin delivers the most heart-rending speeches, but she floors the audience emotionally, chiefly by utter calm.

Rural charm

Act IV brings desperately needed comic relief after three acts of grim and dim royal family angst. The characters who provide it are named simply “Old Shepherd,” “Clown, his son,” and Autolycus, a sophisticated scoundrel.

Ames Adamson brings a nobleness to Old Shepherd that stretches belief about his not knowing how to read, but he is in every other way a credible 83-year-old. Seamus Mulcahy plays the dim-witted dolt divinely. And William Sturdivant, the roguish opportunist, commands the stage, charming the audience into sympathy for a prevaricating pickpocket.

Young love

Perdita, age 16, and Prince Florizel, 23,—disguised as “Doracles,” a peasant—are the story’s youthful love interest. Courtney McGowan is all sweetness itself as Perdita. Ryan Woods passionately and eloquently out-Romeos Romeo himself as the highly principled prince who sticks to his woman despite Polixenes’ threat to keep him from ever ascending the throne of Bohemia.

Shakespeare’s romantic comedies followed the expected formula of producing three weddings by play’s end. “The Winter’s Tale” astonishes: Whereas Perdita and Florizel’s marriage is fairly predictable despite obstacles, the other two are totally unforeseen. But don’t worry. No spoilers here.

Pivotal roles

John Keabler is the tall, handsome king of Bohemia, whose necessarily dialed-down emotionality averts international disaster. Patrick Toon acquits himself increasingly well in dramatic roles, this time as Camillo, counselor first to Leontes, then—by force of circumstances—to Polixenes.

Leontes throws him to the floor in Act I when Camillo disbelieves his master’s wild suspicions of treasonous infidelity by Hermione with Polixenes. Raphael Nash Thompson does double duty as both General Antigonus and as Time. His warm sonorities and stately bearing give the notion that he is a transplant from Shakespeare’s time to ours; he instinctively declaims poetic lines as if he speaks that way over morning coffee.

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Dynamic forces

Over and above the excellent performance by the royals and Camillo, the noblewoman Paulina owns the show hands down, and fittingly, in curtain calls, shares equal footing with Leontes and Hermione. The incandescent Marion Adler delivers with utter command the tongue-thrashing of a lifetime when the uninvited Paulina confronts Leontes to defend his queen.

Hers is the absolute best line, vehemently spat at two courtiers who, obeying the king’s orders, intend to throw her out: “Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes first hand me.” The men wisely recoil without laying said hand on her. Deserving honorable mention is the young Jeff Lin, who alternates performances with Xander Egbert-Crowe as Mamillius. Despite his relatively few lines, his tender character is the play’s fulcrum, and he makes a touching final appearance as Act V ends.

From icy gloom to bucolic brightness

Scenic Designer Brittany Vasta uses the sparest furnishings—a carved-wood throne and a small curved marble bench or two, often moved onstage and off again—plus over 90,000 feet of tissue paper, which crimps around the stage’s plinth, also around a circular, three-step acting platform, and festoons the movable back panels.

Costume Designer Nikki Delhomme uses an ageless style for royal raiment and rustic attire: knee-length velvet or satin brocade dress coats with a tall mandarin collar for both kings, who sport knee-high leather boots; deep-blue and black velvet gowns for Hermione; earth tones and off-white for the lighthearted denizens of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Lighting Designer Tony Galaska floods Bohemia alone in bright white light, whereas all intensities and hues of blue illuminate the wintry Sicilian indoor scenes, with shiver-inducing crystal chandeliers and their dangling icicles.

Skillful direction

Bonnie J. Monte, as stage director of “The Winter’s Tale,” obviously aims at, and consistently reaches, the heart.

She’s also this production’s Sound Designer and has chosen incidental music that is atmospherically perfect to mood and moment—to introduce scenes, to lead onstage royalty and nobility in an elegant waltz, or to propel the rustics in a lively country dance (kudos to dance consultant Danielle Liccardo). Always faithful to the script, Ms. Monte wisely refuses to solve a play’s every problem. Take the two surprise marriages mentioned above: One seems completely forced and is unsatisfying this side of the footlights; the other—the most important one—is left totally unexplored. It of itself would form the solid foundation for a fascinating sequel. Maybe she will write it. If the Bard were still around, she could no doubt help him sharpen things, bring total clarity to his plots … ultimately, to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Theatre’s 2019 season lineup

  • “Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers,” adapted from Alexandre Dumas
  • “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged),” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor
  • “The Rainmaker,” by N. Richard Nash
  • “As You Like It,” by William Shakespeare
  • “Romeo and Juliet,” by William Shakespeare
  • “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Bartlett

The Winter’s Tale,” by Shakespeare, till December 30, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J.#Everything Music and Theatre.