Slashing, witty and tragic. The Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s minimalist production of James Goldman’s contemporary take on legacy and love, The Lion in Winter, is comic and tragic at the same time. Brian Pastor’s direction gives us some of the best one-liners outside of late-night television, but The Lion in Winter is a serious deliberation on family, heritage and war. The dialogue is fast-paced and never lags, even during the long first act. (The play runs 2.25 hours with an intermission.)
Henry II (Brian Parry) and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Elaine Carlson) may not be as famous as the stars of the 1968 film of the same name (Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn), but their delivery of Goldman’s brilliant and withering lines owes no apology to their predecessors. Parry and Carlson are both excellent as the aging lion, who wants to preserve his legacy, and the wife he has kept imprisoned for 10 years. (They are the family later known as the Plantagenets.)
The setting is Christmas 1183 at Henry’s palace at Chinon, France. The division of Henry’s lands in France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales is in dispute. Henry speaks of himself as old, and at 50, he is old for the time, but he’s vigorous and active, both politically and amorously. The aging lion compares himself to the legend of a king named Lear, “with whom I have a lot in common. Both of us have kingdoms and children we adore, and both of us are old, but there it ends. He cuts his kingdom into bits. I can’t do that.”
Their oldest son, Henry, died the previous summer and they are sparring over who will be king. Eleanor, who is able to hold her own in any confrontation, both loves and despises Henry. She prefers to crown Richard (Jared Dennis), the oldest, but Henry at first prefers the youngest son, John (Tom Murphy), who is 16, silly and whiny—hardly monarch material. They also disagree over the future of Alais (Heather Smith), a French princess who has lived at Henry’s court since she was 8. Now 23, she’s Henry’s mistress but he wants her to marry John, while Eleanor prefers she marry Richard. (Alais’ brother Philip, played by Evan Johnson, is the king of France.) The third son, Geoffrey (Nick Lake) is considered the brains of the family. He is to be John’s chancellor but has ambitions for the crown too. Finally Eleanor and Henry agree that Richard, the strongest and ablest, should be king with Alais as his wife.
The performances of the actors playing the brothers also are excellent. Richard (aka Richard Lionheart) is powerful and commanding; he prefers to make war. Geoffrey is a conspirator who looks out for his own interests (don’t they all?). Smith as Alais, lovely and charming, needs to speak more forcefully; some of her lines are lost when her back is to the audience.
Jeremy Garrett’s set design suggests the stone-walled medieval castle with doors or draperies changing the scenes. Furniture and props are added as necessary. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes are low-key regal with no flash or ostentation. Ben Sutherland’s original music blends medieval themes with contemporary tropes suggesting the play’s 1960s creation.
Goldman’s play was first staged on Broadway in 1966; he also wrote the film version directed by Anthony Harvey, released in 1968. The playwright acknowledges that while much of the story is based on history, it is not entirely factual. Goldman is best known for The Lion in Winter, but he wrote many other historically based works.
The Lion in Winter continues its run at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, through May 22. Performances are Thursday-Monday. Tickets for $24 can be purchased online, at the box office, or by calling 773-935-6875.