By Vicki Paris Goodman
Call me a product of contemporary American culture. I am guilty as charged, as I couldn’t help imagining Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock outsmarting opponent after wily opponent as I watched The Lion in Winter at the Long Beach Playhouse.
A shocking examination of psychological jockeying for the coveted throne of England, the play is set in 1183 in the castle of King Henry II (of the Plantagenets, in case you were curious) and his imprisoned wife Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor, portrayed to duplicitous perfection by Diane Benedict, lives a cozy enough existence in the castle’s dungeon for some prior offense not mentioned in the play. Benedict’s Eleanor is at once kind and conniving. She and the relatively benevolent Henry, played with a slightly too modern speaking style by Steven Biggs, once loved each other, or not, and may still harbor a good deal of fondness for one another, or not.
It’s frustratingly hard to tell who loves or loathes whom. And that is both the point and the beauty of The Lion in Winter. Start to finish, the play maintains an uncertainty of alliance and affection between family members that keeps us guessing what’s what. As soon as we are convinced of a particular emotion’s existence between two characters, certainty is once again ripped away when things change on a dime.
Three rather humorless sons, who couldn’t be more distinct in inclination and aptitude, want no part of a shared reign at such future time that Henry should die. I suppose I would be humorless, too, if I were constantly in danger of being stabbed in the back, both figuratively and literally.
In any case, brave Richard (yes, the Lionhearted one), cerebral Geoffrey, and oafish John all desire to be heir apparent. To make matters more complex, Henry and Eleanor have each weighed in with strong opinions on the matter. And each has potent bargaining chips.
A hunky, head-shaven Travis McHenry plays the warrior-like Richard, Eleanor’s pick for the next king. His intimidating demeanor cloaks an emotional neediness that the formidable McHenry somehow manages to convey. Bravo!
Geoffrey, a classic example of middle-child syndrome, may be the brainiest, but that hardly makes up for a childhood of being disfavored and overlooked. The role of poor diss’d Geoffrey is handled well by Gregory Spradlin.
Matthew Riggle might, in a less refined setting, solicit boos and tomatoes for his subtly obnoxious and unpopular depiction of youngest son John, whom Henry inexplicably favors to be his successor to the throne. Riggle skillfully manages the spoiled, clumsy, and immature character.
Kate Woodruff Felton ably delivers the part of the lovely Alais– Henry’s mistress, Eleanor’s “foster child,” and possible future wife to whichever son ultimately acquires the throne. She is also the sister of Philip, the sharp-minded young King of France, played admirably by Adam Hale.
Spot-on direction by Michael Ross ensures that the play’s enigmatic familial bonds remain so, and that nothing is overdone. James Goldman’s brilliant playwriting speaks for itself, and Ross clearly recognizes the fact.
Set designer David Scaglione’s spare Gothic-arched dungeon is true-to-fantasy and functions beautifully given the limited stage footage. Scaglione’s faux-stone structure is made even more compelling by Andrew Vonderschmitt’s mood-enhancing lighting, which creates a chilling shadow effect of the three brothers at the play’s conclusion. Donna Fritsche’s costumes are, as usual, realistic and attractive.
The Lion in Winter wholly captures the universality of family dysfunction while rendering its manifestations both recognizable and unrecognizable, the latter no doubt due to the more acceptable brutality of the place and time. A compelling story of game-changing manipulation and emotional exploitation, The Lion in Winter is one first-rate play. And the Long Beach Playhouse’s is one first-class production.
The Lion in Winter continues in the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through Saturday, Dec. 11. General admission tickets are $22; $20 for seniors. Student tickets are $12 with valid student ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org.