James Goldman’s historical play, "The Lion in Winter,"
has sparkling dialogue, precipitous and perplexing changes of
mood rocketing from the sublime to the sadistic and a plot that
is tricky, terrifying and terribly funny.
The drama, which opened on Broadway in 1966, closed after
only 83 performances though it starred Robert Preston as King
Henry II, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Christopher
Walken as Philip, King of France. But it’s easy to understand
– such a cerebral play could not compete with the glitz of Broadway
Fortunately, in 1968, "The Lion in Winter" was turned
into a film that earned the drama its deserved recognition. The
film won three Academy Awards, including an unprecedented third
one for Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor opposite Peter O’Toole’s
Oscar-nominated Henry II.
Box office success and critical acclaim brought renewed attention
to "The Lion in Winter" and led to many successful
stage productions, including a Roundabout Theater production
starring Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne.
This season, the Heights Players have decided to have a go
at Goldman’s formidable work. The script has been entrusted to
director David Keller, making his main stage directorial debut
after appearing in many Heights Players productions including
"Sweet Charity," "Beau Jest," "Arsenic
and Old Lace," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to
the Forum" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
Keller has assembled a cast that includes Heights Players
veterans Susan Faye Groberg ("Fiddler," "Forum,"
"Beau Jest") as Eleanor and John E. Kelly ("Man
of La Mancha," "Kiss Me Kate," "Carnival")
Keller has also called on the skills of set designer Gerald
Newman to re-create Henry’s court, and costume designer Suzanne
Hall-Fritsch to dress the cast in tunics, boots, fur-trimmed
dress and the ubiquitous swords. Both do an excellent job of
setting the tone and the scene.
"The Lion in Winter" takes place during Christmas
1183, when Henry II, King of England, has summoned his family
to his castle in Chinon, France.
Henry has decided to announce his successor to his wife, Eleanor,
whom he has imprisoned in a remote castle to keep her from fomenting
rebellion in his kingdom; her favorite, and their eldest son,
Richard the Lionheart (Brian Faherty); his favorite, their youngest,
John (Jonathan O. Sessler); and their middle son, Geoffrey (Stephen
Heskett), whom everyone despises.
Also present are Henry’s mistress, Alice Capet (Susanne Curtin),
and her brother, Philip, King of France (Chandler Williams),
who is determined that Henry give up Alice and hand her over
to whoever will ascend to the throne upon Henry’s death.
As the play progresses, it becomes obvious that as much as
Henry loves Alice, he loves power more. And as much as Eleanor
still loves Henry, she loves her children – all ambitious and
obnoxious – more.
The encounters between king and queen are a series of challenges,
feints, compromises and reversals, all delivered with wit, insight,
humor and the extraordinary touch of irony from which no one
"Of course he has a knife. Everyone has a knife. It’s
1183 and we’re all barbarians," Eleanor retorts when the
action gets nasty.
Groberg and Kelly, who have previously been married in the
Heights Players’ production of "California Suite,"
once again clash wills and produce wonderful fireworks. Eleanor
begs, wheedles and manipulates. The more powerful Henry, despite
having the upper hand, is often putty in Eleanor’s own capable
hands. Mixing passion with prudence, he almost triumphs, until
Faherty, Sessler and Heskett make each son despicable in his
own delightful way. Richard is arrogant. John is craven. Geoffry
is sly. They are all unworthy of wearing the crown they will
do anything to get.
Curtin and Williams are quite substantial in their supporting
roles. Alice is winsome and wily enough to almost hold her own.
Philip has all the anger of an injured son but none of the fortitude
he needs to avenge either his or his father’s honor.
"The Lion in Winter" is not a difficult play to
produce. There are no major scene or costume changes or technical
problems to try an actor or a director’s soul. But the play is
not without its pitfalls.
Without actors who are disciplined and sensitive, the wide
range of emotions, sudden shifts in direction and constant undertone
of self-mockery will lose many in the audience. The sheer nastiness
or self-interest of almost everyone will make the audience lose
sympathy. And without a director with a consistent vision, the
great volume of verbiage will wander into aimless rambling.
The Heights Players’ "The Lion in Winter" is blessed
with both – a talented director and actors.
"The Lion in Winter" plays
until April 15, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday 3 pm. Tickets
are $10, students and seniors $8. The Heights Players’ theater
is located at 26 Willow Place. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.