When Robert Newman takes the stage as King Henry II in “Lion in Winter,” the audience spontaneously applauses before he even utters a word.
And it’s well deserved.
Not just because the man himself is royalty at The Barn — having started his career more than three decades ago at the beloved summer stock theater and returned again and again throughout a fruitful stage and screen career — but also because his Henry is regal, pompous, twisted, convincing, selfish, virile, and utterly charming.
Yet a king is nothing without his queen. And fellow guest star Kim Zimmer — Newman’s four-time Emmy Award-winning costar in daytime soap opera “Guiding Light” who has also made appearances on The Barn stage for decades — is “Medea to a T” as Henry accuses her, embodying the wit, grace, devilishness, and cunning scheming of the imprisoned aging Queen Eleanor, while also inspiring sympathy. She’s terribly devious, though deliciously so.
Their performance is marvelously skillful — as if they were born to play these roles opposite one another. The passion between them is palpable, and to watch them play together is to be seduced by the sinister high-stakes game their characters are playing.
James Goldman’s 1966 comic drama “The Lion in Winter” is best known for the 1968 Academy Award-winning film version starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, and recreates a 12th century dysfunctional family drama that changed the face of Europe.
“I could have conquered Europe, all of it. But I had women in my life,” Henry declares near the end of the play. His sexual prowess isn’t waning, though the inevitable end of his reign is nigh. It’s Christmas in the year 1183 and Henry has gathered his three sons; his wife, Eleanor, whom he’s kept locked up for a decade; Alais, his mistress; and King Philip of France — Alais’s brother; in their French chateau.
The brutal game they’re playing is that of who will inherit the throne. The verbal and literal daggers they throw are deadly and yet also strikingly amusing. How these high-powered family members wheel and deal and what they’re willing to sacrifice to get what they want is fascinating. A little bit Edward Albee and a little bit Shakespeare, the show provides high drama at its best, and an obvious precursor to the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon.
In addition to Newman and Zimmer, Director Hans Friedrichs put together a fine cast to support the primary drama on stage. The brothers are distinct and terrible in their own right. Grisham’s Richard is fearsome and statuesque, only showing vulnerability in a scintillating scene with Quinn Moran as Philip II, who is notably French without an accent, in part thanks to Payge Crock’s elegant costuming. William Dunn is appropriately annoying and loathsome as “walking pustule” teenage John, though his performance is rather one-note; and Jabri Johnson is a beautiful and machiavellian Geoffrey. Also exquisitely beautiful, Audrey Morton’s Alais is sweet and youthful with an almost sing-song delivery of her lines, but the character grows in personal power: a pawn who comes into her own.
Samantha Snow’s set, regally dressed, provides stone archways and a turntable center stage to create seamless transitions between a cozy great room with a fireplace and intimate private quarters as well as opportune sites for seriously dramatic lighting including candles, torch sconces, and subtle dark shifts at poignant moments to end scenes.
All the elements are here for a powerful production, and yet it’s the show’s returning stars who really make this excellent show — the only straight play this season at The Barn — a very special highlight of the summer.
Lion in Winter
The Barn Theatre