Many years ago, as he stood enveloped by the hushed solitude that permeates Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in southern England that features several huge standing stones in a circular pattern, the cunning actor Charles Laughton suddenly realized that King Lear was about "primitive man, with his knuckles brushing the earth, and his other hand stretched toward God." By the end of the current St. Louis Shakespeare production of King Lear, that searing image is replicated. The striking scenic design by Margaret Engel presents a henge-like locale composed of eight stone blocks of varying sizes and shapes. In the evening's final scene, as Peter Mayer's Lear stands over the corpse of his murdered daughter Cordelia and cries out to God — "Do you see this?" — Mayer has all but become a ninth block of stone, a veritable pillar of salt, ossified by a stunning new awareness of mortality.
And so the primeval circle is made complete. In the opening scene, as the aging monarch arranges for his own succession by dividing his realm between daughters Goneril (Donna Northcutt) and Regan (Kelly Schnider), Mayer seems to confuse anger for authority. Even before he banishes his youngest daughter Cordelia (Paris McCarthy) for the dubious sin of ingratitude, Mayer spits out his words as if consonants were stained with rancid tobacco. Over the next two and one-half hours, Lear will be pummeled and humbled, but in his final moments on earth he will revert to that early defiance. "I killed the slave that was hanging thee," he furiously boasts to a Cordelia who is beyond hearing. Although a minute later Mayer's Lear will go gently into the good night, until his final moment of release he will rage against the dying of the light.
Yet it's not the fierce moments that are most persuasive here. As it was last year when Mayer portrayed the tortured, doomed Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, once again the actor is most affecting when he registers frailty. At the first inkling that his mind might be fraying, an empathetic fear trembles through Lear's being as he implores his Fool, "O, let me not be mad." In this staging the male role of the Fool is played by an actress, Lindsay Trout. Although I concede that I always find much of what the Fool says to be impenetrable (never the fault of the actor), a female Fool intrigues, for she becomes a surrogate daughter. The sheer act of seeing Lear and the Fool arm in arm provides a kind of catharsis.
Any moments of catharsis are welcome here, because — although in the abstract we know that Shakespeare's King Lear is one of the most sublime achievements in all world drama, a howl against man's foolishness and fragility — a viewer is likely to derive precious little emotional involvement from this telling.
Those who already know the plot will be able to follow Lear's scenario from event to event. But if this Lear were a movie and we could freeze-frame the cursory curtain call, I wonder how many viewers could readily identify the characters with whom they have just invested 150 minutes. Who is married to Goneril? Who to Regan? Which actor is Cordelia's benefactor? Which is Edgar and which is Edmund? Lots of questions, because as staged by Milton Zoth, this Lear is disinclined to want to clarify the story. What is the relationship between Kent and Gloucester (the ever-subtle Kevin Beyer)? And what is Gloucester's ultimate fate? Zoth has no interest in wanting to tell a good story.
Nor is there even a discernible point of view here. In what era is the tale being told? Where are these various scenes playing out? Most pressing of all, why in 2008 is St. Louis Shakespeare staging King Lear? Well, there's this: Not having been produced since 1994, it's Lear's turn again. But a more compelling reason to revisit this outcry against despair remains elusive.