BWW Review: THE LION Brings Raw Emotion to Arena Stage
The premise of THE LION is simple and honest: one actor accompanying himself on guitar as he tells his story. The stage is spare, with painted walls, a radiator, a couple of chairs, and six guitars (one electric with an amplifier). It starts out innocently enough as writer and performer Benjamin Scheuer walks onstage in this touring production, dressed in a crisp blue suit and tie, rocker coif hairsprayed in place. As if playing an acoustic set in a small New York City concert venue, Scheuer launches into the opening song, "Cookie-Tin Banjo," with a charming smile, singing, "My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs." Thus begins his detailed coming-of-age story, which he tells in song as he cycles through each guitar.
The tale is sweet at first, then gains unexpected emotional momentum once Scheuer takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. He goes from a child admiring his father, who built him that cookie-tin banjo with rubber bands and an old red necktie strap, to a teenager resenting his father when he becomes inexplicably angry and distant. A tragic event unfolds, and Scheuer leaves his family and embarks on a life of music (and a search for love) in New York.
As Scheuer explores his complicated relationship with his father and his own journey away from home and family, he bares his heart with just the right ratio of pathos and humor. His lifelong love for music is obvious in the songs he has written: he delves into folk pop, dabbles briefly in angsty teenage rock and roll, and digs into anthems like "Weather the Storm" and "The Lion" that could rival Mumford & Sons. The sound design (Leon Rothenberg) helps facilitate these adjustments in musical style, and the intimate set (Neil Patel) and subtle but powerful lighting choices (Ben Stanton) enhance moments both light and dark.
An important part of experiencing THE LION is its unexpected plot turns, which will not be ruined here. Scheuer reveals these turns as if speaking directly to a friend. He makes his life lessons relatable to anyone else whose life has been touched by love or loss, and he manages this without being preachy. We know something goes right in the story, because here he is onstage, playing these autobiographical songs with skill and care.
In the course of the one-man play, which feels less like a play and more like reality as it goes on, Scheuer lifts spirits with the heart of a lion. "Inside my gentle paws I've got some devastating claws," he sings. This is true of the play as well.
Running time: approximately 70 minutes without an intermission.
THE LION plays through April 10, 2016, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets can be purchased on arenastage.org or by calling 202-488-3300.