by STUART SHEPPARD | Pittsburgh City Paper
There is a delicious insouciance among the characters in PICT Classic Theatre’s The Lion in Winter, which is refreshing, as so many productions these days fall prey to psychological tendentiousness. This 1966 play by James Goldman examines the intrigue that besets the royal family of Henry II during a Christmas gathering in 1183. Power, succession, and war are on the minds of all the attendees, yet director John Shepard gives these 12th-century figures a profoundly interior — and modern — sensibility, one that doesn’t come across as dictated by the playwright.
Alan Stanford as Henry, and Cary Anne Spear as his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, tangle like a medieval version of George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They enjoy playing the game of who can trump whom as the better pathological liar, which becomes perplexing to their three children, all vying for the throne.
Stanford exudes a relaxed grandiosity when delivering lines like, “Henry, they’ll say, was a master bastard,” and looks like Falstaff holding a dry martini. His guile as the king makes the dangerous space between charm and cunning feel so warm that you want to bask in it, even if it kills you. Spear brilliantly underplays the qualities that made Eleanor a survivor in this male-dominated world, delightfully summing up her philosophy in two words: “Promise anything!” Their scene together in the second act is a powerful duel between old lovers who relish each other more as adversaries.
Johnmichael Bohach’s set puts us in the intimate chambers away from public display at this court, adding to the intrigue that is constantly mounting.
Joan Markert’s costumes, and Jessica Kate Matthews’ props take us to a time when clothes were worn for warmth indoors, and knives meant serious business.
Karen Baum’s Alais is a complex mistress to Henry, who reveals her true motives in a trickle, until they become something torrential. Tony Bingham, as Richard, and Gregory Johnstone, as Geoffrey, also stand out in the excellent cast.
Shepard and his company deserve immense credit for making this history of a thousand years ago seem so human today.