Except they can and they do, something that director Daniel Sullivan's mystical but sensible spin on this heaven-sweeping tragedy reminds us better than most productions manage. The Lear here, played with a casual, taken-for-granted munificence by John Lithgow, has been at the center of everything for his version of forever. The opening scene features his subjects pounding hidden drums and braying to the sky, in supplication to forces they can't see but know are there, summoning a primal tribalism that puts their leader at the center of not just their lives, but their universe.
And when he first appears soon after, that's obviously where he belongs. Hoping to give up the day-to-day drudgery of ruling, he's parceling out his kingdom to his three daughters, based strictly on how much they claim to love him. When the two oldest, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), burst forth with their litanies of affection, Lear's visage and manner remain steadfast, his grip firmly on himself and the country he dominates. It's only when his youngest and most beloved child, Cordelia (Jessica Collins), refuses to play along that everything changes, and hardly for the better.
As Lear rages against her, not only disowning and displacing her, but also her suitor, the King of France (Slate Holmgren), and his own devoted servant, the Earl of Kent (Jay O. Sanders), you can actually see the deific façade crumble from Lithgow's face. In a manner of moments, the confident ruler has become a put-upon peasant, the man who commands others now eternally at others' command. From there, Lear's final fate is a fait accompli, the actions of him and those around him merely killing time until the inevitable has fully unwrapped. And, when it does, you're seeing the predictable evolution of decaying omniscience, a towering titan reduced to a sobbing, insignificant baby.
Sullivan and Lithgow approach this concept so organically that, though it's clearer than it's ever been how things will end — no, how they must end — you have more reasons than ever to want to see the story all the way through. Chief among these is Lear's captivating own development. Upon his first appearance, Lithgow's king looks to be in complete command of his faculties, too spry and even young to wither into hopelessness. But that grasp of life is exactly what dooms him: hanging on to his past earthly pleasures, such as his trenchantly truth-spewing fool (Steven Boyer, pointed and no-nonsense), rather than assessing each moment anew traps him within a vortex of madness from which he can't escape when they're all taken away.
Lithgow's performance is littered with such moments, perhaps none more resounding than when he surveys his final loss at evening's end and can only cry out in a ritualistic chant that suggests he's about ready to give his body back to its creator. (Which, of course, he is.) It's enormously effective, if rather less affecting: Lithgow's Lear definitely looks at everything from the outside in, which doesn't make his portrayal a particularly moving one. Nor is it, like most of the rest of Sullivan's production, rife with groundbreaking choices apparently intended to brand this as the definitive mounting for the ages.
Communicating that idea separates the winners from the losers here. Bening falters because her Goneril is too much an empty vessel, and not one the actress fills with identifiable motivations beyond the desire for more influence. Hecht's Regan is more interesting, as you can all but see her soul rot under the withering influence of her especially ruthless older sister. Collins's Cordelia is hardly innocent — from the first instant, she knows what trouble she's inviting through her truth-telling — and this makes her transformation, and ultimate fate, more believable and tragic than is often case. As Kent, Sanders doesn't give much beyond loyalty to Lear, but he gives it fully and well. And Peters, Iwuji, and Stevens find more urgency in their subplot than any trio I've ever seen in those roles.
They're central, too, to this production's anchoring scene, when Edgar, masquerading as an itinerant madman, meets Lear at the middle of his own downward spiral. Though already lost the ability to identify his surroundings or the common sense that drives it, Lear looks after and past Edgar as though he knows that he's secretly witnessing his own destiny: mewling about the mud rather than romping through the stars. As Lear stares, you observe the tiniest flicker of recognition that his birthright is no longer what it was, but that he's already accepted that fact. On some level, he knows that even the gods are immune to the ravages of time. But with Sullivan and Lithgow at the helm, King Lear looks as youthful and relevant as ever.
The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park