Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
It’s been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Admittedly a lot has changed in the millennium since Henry II ruled England and much of France, yet the story of this king and his patently dysfunctional family resounds with sibling rivalry and marital sparring that today’s audience may find still familiar. However, considerable humor and love lurks just beneath the surface.
James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter completes The Kearsley Park Players’ season with an impressive performance at the Crossroads Village Opera House. Only performing for this weekend, Thursday’s opening found King Henry II (Brian Haggard) gathering his family at Christmas in the winter of 1183. He has also allowed his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kay Kelly), to join in the celebration – an interesting move since Henry’s mistress Alais (Annadelle Kimber) is also present.
Adding fuel to the fireworks that inevitably spark is the argument over which of their sons Henry will designate as his successor. The eldest, Richard (Ian Thomas), is Eleanor’s choice and she fights for him with every ploy at her disposal while Henry stands steadfast for the youngest, John (Justin Wetenhall). We are all left wondering how they could so totally ignore second son Geoffrey (James Cech) – middle child syndrome perhaps?
The entire clan, including Alais and the King of France (Mark Vukelich), are drawn into the fray as everyone matches their considerable wits and wiles in the mad scramble for the throne.
Goldman’s script is incredibly well served by this troupe. Haggard and Kelly combine to bring this estranged royal couple vibrantly to life. Theirs is a love-hate relationship borne of their intellectual equality perhaps, but equally fanned by an underlying attraction that neither of them will completely deny. They are excellent.
Kelly is heroic in her egoistic nonchalance as she verbally jousts with her sons and with Henry as well. “It’s 1183; we’re ALL barbarians!” she declares sardonically in response to a critical jibe. But her yin and yang where Henry is concerned instill the most powerful emotions here and are mirrored with nearly equal intensity by Haggard.
Thomas gives a many-faceted portrayal as Richard, known as Lionheart. Appearing strong, he is often sullen, brooding, and angry as well as occasionally vulnerable and confused. He is at once the lion and the lamb.
Whiney and unsure, Henry’s favorite son John is every spoiled youngster you’ve ever known in the hands of Wetenhall. Pouty, pushy, taunting, and easily led, he ranges from palace pillar to post trying to figure out his place in the family scheme.
Dry and sarcastic, the forgotten son Geoffrey uses intellectual humor to point up his exclusion from the negotiations. Cech’s carriage in this role could be described as accepting at first until his ability to control and convince emerges.
Alais’ brother Phillip, the King of France, arrives to demand the marriage of his sister to Richard as contracted many years before or the return of the lands forfeited for her dowry. Vukelich brings a kind of brashness to this role of the young monarch and outsider with a major trump card up his sleeve.
Kimber weaves pathos and pride together in the character of Alais. Though torn among loyalties to Henry, to Eleanor who raised her, to France, and to her contract to Richard, she still emerges intact.
This is a hefty script with crafty cross-hatching of anxiety and humor, but this troupe is up to the challenge. Director Shelly Hoffman has steered a steady course with this talented crew making this an undertaking not to be missed.
If there is a caveat to be mentioned it might be to sit close to the stage as the acoustics in the old opera house can confound now and then. Maybe it was just me, but some lines were lost to the wings Thursday.
The Lion in Winter continues at Crossroads Village Opera House this weekend only – Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Tickets are only $5 and seating is limited, so arrive early.