Warrior queen: Michelle Summerlin-Yergan as Eleanor
By Kathryn Ceceri
The Lion in Winter
James Goldman, directed by Terry Rabine
Home Made Theater, through Feb. 29
Lion in Winter has always been a fascinating cross between
the historical and the domestic. Called a 12th-century version
of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the real subject
isn’t which of the three sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine
will succeed their father to the throne of England (which
at the time included large chunks of France); it’s the dysfunctional
dance to the death of their battling parents. In this case,
of course, the warring is literal, as the play opens with
Eleanor temporarily released from her 10-year-long house arrest,
the result of a failed coup by the wily queen and her offspring.
And what a sorry bunch they are. Richard, already dubbed “the
Lionhearted,” the eldest of the three and the most qualified
to take over the family business, is his mother’s favorite,
which puts him in Dad’s doghouse. Henry’s chosen heir is John,
a whiny, pimply adolescent 10 years Richard’s junior. Geoffrey,
the neglected middle child, is a conniving opportunist. No
But what can you expect, given their parentage? Eleanor is
a skilled politician and a warrior: She accompanied her first
husband, Louis of France, to the Crusades. Henry taunts her
by taking the French princess Alais, raised by Eleanor and
Henry as the betrothed to Richard, as his latest mistress,
prompting her brother Philip, the newly-crowned king of France,
to arrive demanding a refund on her dowry. The fact that they
are Louis’ children by Eleanor’s replacement makes the situation
all the more incestuous.
Author Goldman (who won an Oscar for his 1968 screen adaptation,
which starred Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole) has fun
with the audience by letting us know his characters know it’s
all a game, or a play. They compare themselves to chess pieces,
and even review their own performances. There’s even the occasional
reference to Hollywood castle-flick cliches.
If any of this motley crew is at all sympathetic, it is, perversely,
Eleanor. Though seemingly ready to sacrifice any of the others
for her own gain, she also expresses wants that we commoners
can understand: love, and the desire for freedom. Goldman
has also granted this brilliant and feisty character the choicest
zingers in a play full of great laugh lines.
Michelle Summerlin-Yergan makes the most of this meaty role.
She rules over all the other players whenever she is onstage—except
Henry, who still holds the upper hand, at least militarily.
John Mountford, his bearing the royal equivalent of “presidential,”
is a believable Henry—nearly, if not quite absolutely, the
equal of Eleanor. Mountford and Elizabeth Foster—as his young
lover, Alais—also make a believable pair, though Foster is
often hard to understand.
Director Terry Rabine has made it easy to keep the three princes
straight by casting to type. Spa Catholic junior David Bedard
fearlessly embraces the role of the childish Prince John,
always half a beat behind the others. As Richard, John O’Neill
cuts a dashing figure; he and the dark and mercurial Mark
Wheeler as Geoffrey also have several good moments. Jonathan
Getnick in the role of Philip gets less to work with, and
The set, by William E. Fritz, uses soaring stone columns,
enhanced by John Miller’s lighting, to suggest castle rooms
that are large, empty and cold, rather than rich and opulent.
The costumes by Patty Pawliczak are the same: functional,
Lion in Winter is a smartly written play where the verbal
pyrotechniques reign. Home Made Theater’s production doesn’t
quite bring out all of the flash, but does give a good glimpse
of its sparkle.