Stage Review: ‘The Lion in Winter’ still has its bite

by SHARON EBERSON | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Watching the Plantagenet family going at each other is like witnessing a PSA for how not to treat loved ones. The scheming royals circa 1183 hurl insults and aim dagger-sharp cruelty at children, parents and lovers.

And yet, “The Lion in Winter” is wicked fun, too.

The PICT Classic Theatre production now playing at the Union Project in Highland Park graces the relatively small space with a whirlwind of sexual and political infighting, played with gusto by Alan Stanford as Henry II, England’s first Plantagenet king, and his queen and sparring partner, Cary Anne Spear as Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The James Goldman play became an Oscar-winning vehicle for Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor and Anthony Hopkins’ film debut as the young Richard the Lionheart.

Henry became king at age 21 and evidently never let his responsibilities get in the way of his lust for the next beautiful woman in his sights, which played havoc with his desire for the perfect heir.

The play supposes the events of an 1183 Christmas gathering. Eleanor has been released from prison — she was there for treason — to join Henry and their three sons as the king attempts to name an heir. His mistress, Alais, promised to Richard as a child but now in love with Henry, is ever at his side; her brother, King Philip of France, fills out the roster.

The party in the John Shepard-directed production gets started right away with a quick visual prompt: Lights fade in and out as each of Henry’s sons is seen admiring the crown.

As the aging Henry, Alan Stanford, with grizzled beard and tired eyes, embodies the play’s title concept: a lion in winter — still roaring but feeling his legacy slipping away.

His sons — Richard (Tony Bingham), the stoic warrior; Geoffrey (Gregory Johnstone), the clever one; and Henry’s favorite, the tantrum-prone John (Matt Henderson) — roam in and out of alliances with their parents and each other.

As the oldest, Richard is the rightful heir, and the formidable Eleanor — played with devious delight by the regal Ms. Spears — will do anything to see him achieve it.

The king, of course, has other ideas.

Throw in Henry’s adoring mistress (Karen Baum) and France’s young but cunning King Philip (Dylan Marquis Meyers), and the irons are all on the fire for an explosive Christmas.

There’s a whole lot of howling at the fates in “The Lion in Winter,” and if there’s a shrill note, it’s personified by the purposefully annoying man-child John. Certainly he is written that way, but Mr. Henderson plays him as if he has been overtaken by the Terrible 2’s, a choice almost too histrionic to bear.

Most of the characterizations are spot-on under Mr. Shepard’s direction. Set designer Johnmichael Bohach provides a believably medieval-style setting, which integrates well with the Union Project’s arched ceilings and Keith A. Traux’s subtle lighting.

Despite its setting, the play’s political wrangling and too-easy declarations of war for personal gain are certain to strike a chord for anyone who has lived through 2016.

And if you like your humor with a dose of malice, there’s plenty of bite to this “Lion’s” bark.