Lioness Rules “Lion in Winter”

Lioness Rules “Lion in Winter”

By Tom Titus

“Well, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”

That piquant quip, at the outset of James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” alerts audiences that, while they may be in for some powerful historical dramatic fare, there’s a strong sardonic vein running through it as well.

At the Whittier Community Theater, this half-century old historical melodrama – which spawned a memorable movie back in 1968 – is given a splendid revival, dotted with excellent individual performances, by director Lenore Stjerne and a cast rich in the art of depth and nuance.

That year, 1968, is particularly noteworthy locally since it also was the year the old Laguna Playhouse mounted a superb version of Goldman’s play, directed by John Ferzacca and featuring indelible performances by Ralph Richmond and Marthella Randall. No local version has matched that one since, but Whittier’s comes mighty close.

As the production opens, England’s King Henry II (William Crisp), who has kept his estranged wife, Eleanor (Candy Beck) imprisoned for the past decade, summons her back home to share the Christmas holidays with him and their three sons (Collin McDowell, Brandon Ferrucio and Jonathan Tupanjanin), each of whom covets the throne upon their father’s passing (two of them will achieve it).

Crisp renders a strong and substantial performance as the English monarch, but it’s Beck’s Eleanor of Aquitaine who rules this production. She’s at once proud, maternal, devious and heartbroken in a portrayal rich in both style and substance, drawing emotional blood with her acid-tinged observations.

Beck scores especially high in her scenes with Crisp as the royal couple engage in a battle of wits reminiscent of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (a play Sterne also has directed). Crisp also shifts from calmness to combustibility quite effectively, but his character contains somewhat less dimension than hers.

As their oldest surviving son, destined for greatness as Richard the Lionheart, McDowell radiates strength and fortitude. He wears his right of succession like a mantle, ready to strike at anyone who dares to challenge him..

The middle son, Geoffrey, a schemer par excellence, is played with ironic glee by Ferruccio, who delights in his Machiavellian plotting but nevertheless seethes with resentment that he’s not even considered in the line of succession.

Their younger brother — John, who eventually would succeed Richard as king and be forced to sign the Magna Carta — is characterized as cruel, disgusting and childish. Tupanjanin revels in this infantile character, prone to tantrums and unbridled in his outbursts.

Henry’s young mistress, elder sister of the visiting king of France, who worships Henry and tearfully rails against a marriage to one of his sons, is beautifully rendered by Jamie Sowers. Her impact grows as the play progresses, as does her love-hate relationship with Eleanor.

Luke Miller’s King Philip II fares less effectively, struggling with an unconvincing accent (dealing with “zis” and “zat”) and delivering a rather stilted performance. His air of authority in his scenes with Crisp is artificial at best.

Director Stjerne, who staged many productions in Irvine and Westminster over the last quarter of a century, has elicited some strong and memorable moments in this handsomely mounted revival. Set designer Mark Frederickson’s large rear wall functions as a ubiquitous backdrop for the action, while the 12th century costumes from Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are impressive.

“The Lion in Winter” may be a fictitious fable involving actual historical characters, but playwright Goldman has woven their passions together with consummate skill. It’s a powerful evening, laced with dark humor, at the Whittier Community Theater.

Performances continue through Nov. 22, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 16, at the Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave., Whittier. Call (562) 696-0600 for ticket information.

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