- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The personal is supremely political in “The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman, as three sons jockey for position as the new king in anticipation of the death of their father, Henry II of England (Brian Donohue), in a production by the Newtowne Players in Lexington Park.
A tense Christmas brings the spectacularly dysfunctional royal family back together, more to scheme and maneuver than to celebrate. The formidable queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Valarie Green), is released temporarily from genteel imprisonment to keep up appearances for the holiday. She uses her freedom to snipe at beautiful foster daughter Alais (Kaitelyn Bauer), who has replaced her in Henry’s bed.
As they decorate the tapestry-bedecked stone palace with greenery, Henry asks Eleanor, “Shall we hang the holly or each other?” As events unfold, they almost manage both.
Eleanor backs Richard (Joseph W. Turner), who as the eldest and a proven warrior — history remembers him as Richard the Lionheart — is the obvious choice as heir. Henry, no weakling himself, still can’t seem to help throwing his support to his favorite, John (Billy Borst), despite his youngest child’s timidity and low character. Trapped in the middle, conniving Geoffrey (Timothy Joyce) plays his brothers off each other, his father off his mother and everyone off Philip, King of France (John Sanford).
Much of the plot hinges on schemes and counterschemes, each thwarting the other before much actually happens. But the simultaneous alliances and betrayals are worth attending to because they bring about a final conflict where every character must choose, however vacillatingly, between familial loyalty and self-preservation.
Veteran performer Green shines as the indomitable Eleanor, shut away after raising an army against her husband one too many times. Ruthless in using any means — her children included — to expand her diminished influence, she endures confinement with feigned cheerfulness because her pride won’t let her admit defeat.
Green and Donohue admirably portray their characters’ complicated relationship, which swings between love and hatred without ever diminishing their mutual respect. One suspects that Donohue’s Henry, an old man, is in his decline and would happily stop plotting if only his family would let him. His wife, it seems, never tires of anything, especially scheming.
The story is old but never dated, said director Bill Scarafia.
“I don’t know who of us hasn’t come across a dysfunctional family. It’s just a different time frame,” Scarafia said. The play is “certainly not a comedy,” but characters’ interactions do provide some lighter moments.
The production’s soundtrack sets the scene with music from around the time of the Crusades, said sound designer Rick Thompson, although the piece audiences will remember is a theme used for Henry, a bracing brass composition by 16th-century musician Tielman Susato.
By artistic necessity, Thompson rejected music from the 12th century.
“You look at the Renaissance and then go beyond that, you get chants. For the most part, the music from then is boring,” Thompson said.
Scarafia marveled that he was able to find superior actors among local volunteers.
“It’s amazing to me, the talent we have in this community. For this particular show, there’s seven parts. I was really concerned about finding a cast I was comfortable with. We had 40 people try out for seven parts.”
He also marveled at everyone’s stamina, including his own.
“It’s a lot of work, and every year when I’m done with a show I think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again.’ And then the list comes out and I say, ‘I want to do this one,’” Scarafia said.