This past weekend, The Arlington Players opened a solid production of the dark comedy, The Lion In Winter, by Playwright James Goldman. For those unfamiliar with the play, it is a work of fiction but is based around historical figures, in the time of King Henry the II in the 12th century. Set on the Christmas of 1183, the plot and dialogue are entirely creations of Goldman, but the substance has a basis in recorded history (and rumor).
The story bears slight resemblances to Shakespeare’s King Lear, with a father of three children burdened with the task of determining his heir and the control of his land. King Henry even likens himself to Lear in the 1st Act. But now add, to the bickering, deceptive, in-family fighting of Lear, the comedic pacing, banter, and wit of Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick and Beatrice– to stick with the Shakespeare character comparison. This is The Lion In Winter. Love, betrayal, sacrifice, humor, drama, treachery….
Susan Devine did an excellent job directing the show, making great use of the set (designed by Dan Remmers), which has platforms and drapes to have the appearance of being in many different parts of the castle.
Musical Direction was by the multi-talented Tina Chancey, who also served as the show’s entire soundtrack as Minstrel. She played medieval music, using genuine gut-strung, bowed instruments. The music was a perfect way to transport the audience back to the proper time frame of the play, as well as helping make transitions more seamless.
Goldman’s play, written in 1966, was made into a feature film, with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, and has been on Broadway, starring Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing. With the understanding of a history such as this, The Lion In Winter is a production that, if going to be done, needs to have powerful performances. And The Arlington Players delivers exactly that.
Michael Kharfen plays Henry, who is bent on naming his youngest son, John (Patrick Kearney), as his heir to the throne. But Henry’s wife, Eleanor (Diane Sams) wants Richard (Patrick Pasake), their oldest surviving son, to be King.
Kearney, as Henry’s favorite-and weakest-son John, is hilariously inept. It is a great mystery why a man as forceful and strong-willed as Henry would want such an easily led heir, with no backbone, but that enigma just adds to the comedy. Contrastingly, Pasake’s Richard (one day to be King Richard the Lion Hearted) is a celebrated soldier, with the temperament and intelligence suitable for a position of power. He seems the obvious choice.
But then there is also the cleverest of the three, the middle child, Geoffrey, played by Eric Kennedy. Geoffrey makes and breaks alliances according to the best outcome for himself. He observes, assesses, and then maneuvers accordingly, and Kennedy illustrates this conniving character with incredible intensity and keen awareness.
To be added to the mess is another obvious point of contention, King Philip (Derek Marsh) of France’s half-sister, Alais (Sirena Dib). Alais has been betrothed to Richard since she was eight, and has been living with the family as Henry’s ward, until she grew to become his mistress. Dib plays Alais’ innocence well, as she is mostly a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations and the only true victim in all of the family’s backstabbing and trickery. But Alais has lived most of her life among Henry and his family, and she surprises them all with her own ability to see and seize her power and use it to get what she wants.
I must give a special mention to Diane Sams, who gives an incredible performance as Eleanor, the powerful woman, wife, and mother, who has been imprisoned for the past 10 years by her own husband, Henry. She is trotted out for holidays and special appearances, but seems to have become quite content with the arrangement. Eleanor and Henry argue and bargain with each other like it’s foreplay. The constant power struggle between these two is incredible. Sams and Michael Kharfen often seem more like wild animals tracking their prey, and each have extremely vulnerable moments where they seem to finally be completely broken from the fighting. They play and twist emotions, constantly scheming against one another. Each struggles with their feeling of love and duty to their children but also the necessity for self-preservation and control. These two actors have an undeniable chemistry and the strength of their performances would be enough on its own to make this production a success.
Each of the characters’ relationships is exceedingly complex, yet also very relatable: Parents picking favorites, the middle child feeling ignored and unloved, new romances, old passion that waivers between hatred and love, power struggles.
No one in this play is wholly innocent, yet they are all able to be sympathized with. That fact is part of the mastery of Goldman’s play, where each character is in their own way a villain. Yet you find yourself rooting for every one of them at one point or another. But the text alone cannot make such a premise believable. The Arlington Players have rounded up a fine group of actors, fit to take on the task of bringing this powerful, emotional, and hilarious show to life.
There is no easy way to describe and break down The Lion In Winter, nor do I entirely want to because it is the intricate web woven from the desires of each character that is fascinating to watch unravel. You must simply go see it yourself.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.
The Lion In Winter plays through February 11, 2017, at The Arlington Players performing at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre – 125 South Old Glebe Road, in Arlington, VA. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.