Theater review: The leads of ‘The Lion in Winter’ reign over a polished production in Laguna Beach

by Christopher Smith

November 11, 2019

Upper-crust families who bicker and quarrel always make for compelling theater.

From flocking to ancient Greek plays — bloody generational strife — to Shakespeare — fights over power, land and riches — to the modern-day family finagling on HBO’s “Succession,” audiences can’t seem to get enough of dysfunctional haves conniving to outdo, and do in, each other.

Notable in this format is James Goldman’s 1966 play, “The Lion in Winter,” re-written into a hit movie with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the late ‘60s as well as a staple on college and community stages over the decades.

A new production, starring TV and film actors Gregory Harrison and Frances Fisher, opened this past weekend at the Laguna Playhouse.

During Christmastime in medieval times, King Henry II of England and his wife Queen Eleanor — whom Henry locked up in a castle for 10 years after she tried to overthrow him — gather with their three adult sons not to exchange gifts, but verbal blows over who will be heir to the throne.

The five of them, along with the young king of France who has a stake in the action, and his sister, Henry’s mistress, go round and round and round. While 1183 is the age of sword-play, “The Lion in Winter” is all thrusts and parries in the form of arguing.

The non-stop jockeying for position is easy enough to follow, as most soap opera-style plots are. When one of the princes declares: “I know, I know you know, I know you know I know, we know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it”… we in the audience do know what he is talking about.

Whether or not this is your goblet of arsenic depends a bit on how you feel about the language used, which goes arch in every utterance. While set more than 900 years ago the glib dialogue feels like some Noel Coward cocktail party in the 1920s. Eleanor to one of her sons: “”Hush, dear, mother’s fighting”; and, another exchange, “in a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”

In the more than capable hands of veteran Southern California director Sheldon Epps, it all works out well, largely for the measured pace and tone he establishes early on. For much of the first act, despite the disputatious chatter of everybody versus everybody, Epps has the pot simmer, but not boil over so that while the rancor bubbles up, his actors have somewhere to go in building their characters.

The key to showcasing the linguistic theatrics is the ability of the actors playing Henry and Eleanor to give us a believable, if not quite fair, fight. After all we are firmly rooted in the patriarchy — Henry as king clutches all the power and nobody else on stage is allowed to forget that for a minute. But while he can, and does, steamroller those in his way, Henry is also tiring at 50 years old, a bit less interested in fighting for more gain, but just trying to hold onto his crown and empire.

Harrison and Fisher are well matched as eternal, but aging combatants. Harrison periodically summons Lear-like wrath, but offsets this with a jocular tone. He aptly conveys a Henry who enjoys sparring and toying with his antagonists equally from habit as much as to get his own way. Harrison also is convincing at conveying emotional vulnerability, though his Henry prefers to inflict damage on others more than lick his own wounds.

As his match made not in heaven, for wiliness plus malevolent motherhood, Fisher makes for a terrific Eleanor. She conveys a regal noblesse-oblige somehow while reeking of — deserved — paranoia and reptilian manners.

Fisher flashes a glint of imperious evil whenever heading off Henry at every move he makes. At the same time, when she endures watching him kiss his mistress — Eleanor has begged to see this happen, to emotionally toughen herself — Fisher’s whole person seems to somehow sag even though she doesn’t move an eyelash.

Plays, like family disputes, aren’t fair to all who participate. In the supplementary roles, Burt Grinstead (Prince Richard, ultimately remembered by  history as King Richard the Lionheart), Spencer Curnutt (Prince John) and Ian Littleworth (Prince Geoffrey) are fine, as is Taubert Nadalini (Philip, King of France) and Chelsea Kurtz (Alais, his sister). None of them, however, are afforded roles as memorable as the king and queen.

A disappointment in the Laguna production is the barest of bones set, a series of ascending platforms but not much else. When one of the characters references the tapestry that another is hiding behind, what we get is basically a nondescript curtain. An uptick in production values is the lighting design by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, subtle shadings of muted pale blue and greens that offset bright spots on key characters during appropriate moments.

David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes for the men are not attention-getters, but nicely rendered layerings of embroidered cloth. The women’s gowns have a feel of discreet elegance, particularly for Eleanor, who also breaks out some suitably royal jewelry to start the second act.

In fact, many of the characters don a crown of some sort in the course of “The Lion in Winter.” Which reminds me, Sunday sees the release of season 3 of the Netflix series “The Crown.” More feuding and fighting. I can hardly wait.