Also see John's review of Shostakovich: Music For Orchestra
The Lion In Winter originally opened at the Ambassador Theatre in New York on March 3, 1966 starring Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston. It ran for 92 performances and received two Tony Award nominations. It was adapted for film in 1968 starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. The play was revived at the Criterion Center Stage Right in March of 1999 with Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne, running for 93 performances and receiving one Tony Award nomination (for Channing).
Playwright James Goldman received a Screenwriting Adaptation Academy Award for the film version of the play. He also wrote the screenplays for White Nights, Nicholas and Alexandra, They Might Be Giants and Robin and Marian. In 1971 Goldman won a Tony Award for Best Musical for Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
In the year 1183, the dysfunctional royal family of King Henry II, including his young mistress Alais, gathers together for Christmas in Henry's palace in Chinon, France. Henry has let his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of prison for the holiday. Henry has made it quite clear that he wants the youngest of his three sons, John, to be the next king. Eleanor has made it clear that she wishes their eldest son, Richard (later Named Richard Lionheart), to be the next king. Henry has promised King Philip of France that Alais, Philip's sister, will marry Richard, but also promised Alais she will remain his mistress. Richard insists that he become king because he is the oldest and the most capable. John is sure he will inherit the throne because he is his father's choice. Geoffrey, the middle son, feels unappreciated, with no chance at all of the throne.
Henry and Eleanor both court each son, hoping to advance their cause through lies and manipulation. The three sons do the same, pairing up with each other in various combinations. John and Geoffrey, with King Philip's help, devise a plot to overthrow the plans of Richard and Eleanor and take the kingdom from Henry. Henry attempts to force Eleanor to sign papers giving the Aquitaine, a valuable piece of land in France, to John, virtually guaranteeing his ascension to the throne. Geoffrey tries to make an alliance with Philip, in his own grab for the throne. The family's strategic manipulations are entangled with their twisted emotional ties to one another.
Henry has his three sons locked in the wine cellar, and Eleanor prepares to be sent back to prison. He plans to go to Rome, force the Pope to annul their wedding, and marry Alais. She can then give him new sons from which will be the next king. Alais and Eleanor both point out that any new offspring would be in mortal danger if the three sons are left alive and Henry were to pass away. Eleanor takes daggers to her imprisoned sons, urging them to run, perhaps killing their father. However, they can't act as they seem unwilling to harm him. Henry, learning of their possible plot, is unable to kill them in retaliation. In the end, Eleanor is sent back to prison, the three princes are still squabbling over who shall be king, Henry has no clear successor, and Alais is still caught in the middle. But in the words of Eleanor "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
The costumes, set and lighting for this production are serviceable. Well done are the memorable assorted figures projected in a high recessed window center stage. They are mostly stained glass images appropriate to the time period, and representative of the on-stage action. Direction by Michael Hall is at its best. There is nothing of the staging that seems unnatural, and pacing is crisp.
Pat Nesbit (Eleanor) is an amazingly fine actress. She creates an Eleanor that is endlessly engaging as she weaves her webs of manipulation. Curt Hostetter has a wonderful masculine vitality as Henry. Their moments together are reminiscent of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. While the performances of all three sons are solid, Mark Whittington stands out for his portrayal of the boorishly simply Prince John. Bruce Linser is slightly less convincing as King Philip of France. He seems lacking in the bearing and polish of the role, and has a style to his acting that is more contemporary than those around him. Erin Joy Schmidt has a sweetness to her portrayal of Alais that is like a breath of fresh air in the palace of Chinon. She struggles with a contemporary feel to her character as well, however, and pops in and out of an accent at the beginning of the show.
The only thing lacking is the cast/director's lack of agreement as to whether the characters are to be done with an accent. However, this handsome production of The Lion In Winter is the best thing The Caldwell has done this season. Filled with humor and intelligently written, their production of this American classic is good theatre.
Production dates for The Lion In Winter at the Caldwell Theatre Company are February 18 - April 1, 2007. The Caldwell Theatre Company is a professional theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors. The Caldwell Theatre Company is designated by the State of Florida as a Cultural Institution and receives funding from the State of Florida through the Florida Department of State, the Florida Arts Council and the Division of Cultural Affairs. They are located at 7873 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, FL 33487-1640 in the Levitz Plaza. Look for the theatre's long awaited relocation to their new space in the North Boca Village Center, where it will be housed in the Count de Hoernle Theatre. For tickets and information, you may contact the Caldwell by phone at 561-241-7432 or visit them online at: www.caldwelltheatre.com.
*Indicates member of the Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.