Arts & Culture » Theater

The Rep's Production of The Lion in Winter Is Must-See Theater


Coronation season in 1183 makes the current election cycle look like an episode of Caillou. King Henry II is an old man by the standards of the day, and he needs to anoint his successor now or there will be civil war when he dies. His choices are his three surviving sons — Richard, Geoffrey and John. Of course once he names his heir, his two other sons will try to wrest away the crown from their brother. And then there's Henry's wife, Eleanor, enjoying a brief respite from prison (Henry put her there for spearheading a revolt against him), and forever plotting a way to topple her loving husband from his throne and replace him with her favorite son, Richard.

James Goldman wrote his historical drama The Lion in Winter in 1966, but the current Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production feels as sharp and vital as if the ink was still wet on the page. Director Edward Stern and his well-balanced cast revel in the barbed dialogue and welter of schemes and shifting alliances, together creating the work anew. If you've seen the 1968 film with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn and think you can skip this one, you're deluding yourself. This snarling beast of a play is why you go to the theater in the first place so you can feel the blood splash on your face.

Carol Schultz, center, and Jeffrey King, right, scheme over succession. - JERRY NAUNHEIM JR
  • Carol Schultz, center, and Jeffrey King, right, scheme over succession.

Jeffrey King and Carol Schultz are our Henry and Eleanor, always striving to get the upper hand. King's a towering man with a booming voice, and Schultz is a diminutive woman with sparkling eyes and a kind face. They are a visually and intellectually balanced pair, lying through fond smiles and collapsing into shared laughter when the other lands a particularly devastating insult. Every moment they're locked in verbal combat is a success, every detente in each other's arms a treasure and it's the latter that makes this production a winner. King and Schultz bicker beautifully, but they also exhibit the old love Henry and Eleanor still feel for each another.

As the play progresses you get the distinct feeling Eleanor regrets much of the damage she and Henry have wreaked in their power struggle. Certainly she regrets her husband's infidelities (and maybe a few of her own), but at this Christmas gathering she most regrets the effect it's had on their children.

John (Kurt Hellerich) is the youngest and Henry's favorite; Hellerich plays him as a spoiled teenager who has none of his parents' intelligence. Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges) has too much cleverness. He's a cipher who has schemes within schemes, and is unable to stay loyal to anyone or anything. Even Eleanor's boy Richard (Grayson DeJesus) is too bellicose and proud to rule England as well as his father did. Together with her sons after an early setback, she laments, "Oh, my piglets, we're the origin of war. We carry it like syphilis inside."

While the parents dominate the stage as they did the world, Hellerich, Bridges and DeJesus each prove their mettle as actors. Indeed, if any of them were less than perfect in their roles, things would grind to halt. Instead the play trips merrily along perhaps too quickly at times. The end of every scene is marked by a blackout that comes hot on the heels of the last word of dialogue. At one point Eleanor contemplates her aged face in the mirror and asks aloud how her king could leave her. The darkness falls right at the question mark and we can't see her face to know if Eleanor means it, or if she's found a new line of attack in her wrinkles.

Still, the speed never blunts the thrust of the drama. It's a mature play about love, marriage and the drive for immortality that ends far too quickly for my liking. I could have watched King and Schultz spar all night.


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