THE LION IN WINTER: Promethean Excellence at the Athenaeum

Lion0001Winning fifteen awards out of eighteen nominations in 1968, did more than revive the fortunes of James Goldman’s 1966 play, The Lion in Winter.

The play had closed after 92 performances, even though it boasted of a cast which included Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris, Christopher Walken, and James Rado, whose book for the historic musical Hair would debut two years later.

The award-winning film seemed to freeze the imaginations of subsequent producers. Can’t-shake images of Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn were unconsciously repeated whenever the play found a company willing to re-create the movie experience. (Chicago was introduced to the play version of The Lion in Winter in 1968 by the Academy Playhouse of Wilmette prior to the film’s release .)

Almost half a century has passed since the film of The Lion in Winter opened. Producers seem free to look at the play with fresh eyes. In 1999 a revival starred  Stockard Channing as Eleanor and Laurence Fishburne as Henry II.

And this year, the Promethean Theatre Ensemble gives the play a crisp and compelling production.

Setting the scene at Christmas in the France of 1183, Chicago born and educated playwright James Goldman seems determined to disprove Tolstoy’s famous opening line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The royal family of Henry II (Brian Parry), Eleanor (Elaine Carlson *), scheming sons Geoffrey (Nick Lake), John (Tom Murphy), and Richard (Jared Dennis) displays an unhappiness almost identical to the unhappiness appearing in many American films and plays of the mid-1960s.  The twelfth century dysfunctional  family seems to have read Eric Berne’s Games People Play and unconsciously quote R.D. Laing’s best-selling Knots.

Nevertheless, through Brian Pastor’s pleasantly quiet direction, all of the actors deliver strong performances, which allow the play to be appreciated anew. The actors selflessly define their characters clearly, without seeking star turns for themselves.

However, Elaine Carlson’s Eleanor stands out for having a unique take on the character. A thoughtful actress, her Eleanor arrives at designer Jeremy Garrett’s simple but effective castle, consciously playing the inscrutable persona she has developed over the years. However, once she sees her Henry kissing the young French princess Alais (Heather Smith), the persona begins to crumble, and the real Eleanor starts to emerge, in tantalizing ways, making the audience wonder if the appearance is voluntary or involuntary.

To a greater extent than the film, this production validates Freud’s observation that “dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.”

The production can also boast of subdued but effective costumes by Rachel Sypniewski and an original musical score by Ben Sutherland, presenting medieval tones through the filter of a 1960s sensibility. His music makes anyone (who still remembers) forget John Barry’s award-winning film score.

Productions like this Lion in Winter demonstrate why Chicago is America’s theater capital – excellence may pop up anywhere, and does, very often.

* Ms. Carlson is a former student of mine.




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