Stage Preview: PICT stages minimalist ‘Lion in Winter’ for its holiday offering

by SHARON EBERSON | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s Christmastime 1183, and Henry II and his family are locked in a war of words. He has granted his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a short reprieve from her imprisonment for treason, and they are joined at a gathering in France with three of their sons, who have only ill will for dad, King Philip of France and Philip’s half-sister — Henry’s mistress.

This volatile get-together catalyzes “The Lion in Winter,” a play that presents scenery-chewing possibilities for Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear as Henry and Eleanor for PICT Classic Theatre’s holiday offering.

James Goldman turned his 1966 play about family dysfunction and political scheming into a 1966 film, winning awards for two Eleanors: Rosemary Harris earned the lead actress Tony and Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar as a woman unleashed after a decade of imprisonment.

Eleanor’s great declaration about peace tells just how far to the other side things have gone with her family.

“For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little?” Eleanor asks. “That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.”

John Shepard is directing the piece in the relatively small strip that is PICT’s alley stage at the Union Project in Highland Park.

“Like any great play, it’s very topical, especially with the results of the recent election,” the director said. “You have a sort of megalomaniacal narcissist who runs the country and wants things his way.”

Mr. Stanford is not just his lead actor, but also his boss, as producing artistic director of PICT. He dived into the role of Henry on Election Day, after directing “The Merchant of Venice.”

“He’s not afraid to give me his opinions, and I’ve been amenable to his opinions,” said Mr. Shephard, who acted in several plays when the company was Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, but this is his first time at the helm for PICT.

“It is challenging, but it is great,” he said of directing Mr. Stanford. “He’s such a great actor, and that’s what his audience is going to love — to see him playing this iconic role. I think he’s going to be brilliant doing it; it’s like a hand in a glove.”

Mr. Shepard has borrowed a theory about the rules of relationships from the Czech writer Milan Kundera (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”) that he has used as a guide through the dysfunction of “The Lion in Winter.” The concept is that the rules are made immediately, and no matter how much time is spent apart after the rules are set, the rules of the relationship still apply.

“I think that’s something the audience can relate to during the holidays when families get together,” Mr. Shepard said. “People think possibly that the rules are going to be different this year, and they generally aren’t.”

The cast members, including Tony Bingham as Richard, Gregory Johnstone as Geoffrey, Matt Henderson as John, Dylan Marquis Meyers as King Phillip and Karen Baum as Alais, Henry’s mistress, will walk a bit of a tightrope not just in what they say, but also with every step.

The Union Project space is an alley configuration. After “Shirley Valentine” opened the season on a narrower central strip, the wider stage area that was used for “Merchant” will be in place for “The Lion in Winter.”

“We are doing it very minimal — basically, I have a large medieval-looking table and a toppled chandelier in the corner — and that’s my set. We’re actually finding it very liberating,” Mr. Shepard said.

Even though the play takes place during the holiday season, don’t expect a lot of visual reminders. “It isn’t very Christmasy,” the director admitted.

If you are looking for holiday sparkle, look to the performances.

“Cary Anne Spear is going to be a beautiful Eleanor,” Mr. Shepard said, “and I think it’s going to be great for the audience to see Alan Stanford playing this role. He’s a presence to be reckoned with, and certainly Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, is a force to be reckoned with as well.”