BWW Reviews: Suffield Players' LION IN WINTER Needs More Bite
No one likes drama in their family. But for those of us who like Drama with a capital "D," dysfunctional families make not only good company, but great company. Whether it is the Tyrones of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Wingfields of The Glass Menagerie, or the Westons of August: Osage County, the internal family dynamic can be so brutal and punishing, that you may end up thankful to go back your run-of-the-mill family trivialities. It is almost as if the lions have devoured all of the Christians and, in turn, have started to bite, scratch and maul one another. It can be terribly fun to watch...from the sidelines, of course.
James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, now on the boards at the Suffield Players' Mapleton Hall, spotlights what is arguably the father (and mother) of all dysfunctional families. The play is based on the true tale of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons - the stalwart Richard Lionheart, the bitter also-ran Geoffrey, and the awkward, pimply John. What ups the stakes for this family's internal strife is that it affects the fate of two nations, England and France (more, if you roll in Scotland and Ireland).
Any production of The Lion in Winter not only has to contend with the familial and international battles, but also the excellent, acidic film version starring Peter O'Toole, Anthony Hopkins and Katharine Hepburn. It almost seems like an unfair burden to put on a community theatre production. If you are brave or foolhardy enough to walk into this particular Lion's den, it is something that one has to anticipate.
Director Rayah Martin offers a rather straightforward rendering of the play with no surprises in terms of setting (designed by Bob Williams and Bobby Williams) or costumes (by Dawn McKay). The Suffield Players production seems to hit all of the right notes, but somehow feels off-key for most of the evening. The uneasiness seems related less to the direction and more tied to the performances, although awkward transitions can tend to drag the evening a bit.
After rendering a fascinating, counterintuitive performance in Suffield's As You Like It, Robert Lunde's King Henry feels less the titular King of the Jungle. He occasionally manages to roar, but Lunde barely conveys the sense of a man whose entire empire, legacy and family is in jeopardy. Without a bullying, flawed Henry at its center, fending off the advances of his enemies both internal and external, The Lion in Winter loses its tooth.
Coming off her gripping performance in Little Theatre of Manchester's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Debi Freund's Eleanor of Aquitaine possesses only some of the requisite venom of a woman imprisoned and denied access to her children, her land and her husband. Having seen her Martha, I know Eleanor should be no problem for this actor. Perhaps by sympathetically identifying with Eleanor's plight, Freund seeks to soften the queen, but this particular lioness needs to scratch and bite every bit as hard as her husband-cum-jailer. The fact that Eleanor's machinations mask still potent feelings for her husband should come as a surprise and feel nearly impossible to believe. Freund comes alive in the second act, but needs to focus on turning her first act Eleanor into a seething counterpoint to her blustery husband.
As Richard Lionheart, Will Matus displays backbone and a certain sense of fearlessness. Nathan Rumney submerges himself into the oiliness of Geoffrey, the overlooked Jan Brady of this family. Christian Tarr's awkward John is presented with humor and appropriate goofiness. Unfortunately, all three of the actors remain fairly one-note in their performances. Over the course of nearly three hours, this lessens the audience's desire to see any one of Henry's sons ascend to the throne.
The two remaining performances, Marisa Clement as the royal mistress and Brian Rucci as the king's rival, provide moments of challenge to the king and his brood. With some of the most cutting dialogue and eviscerating repartee available on stage, the cast overall could find much more to play with over the remaining performances. The second act vastly improves upon the first act, but the first act is where many of the most delicious lines and laughs occur. Hopefully, the Suffield Players will help this particular Lion to come in like a, well, you know.