“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” is one of the many witty lines in the short-lived 1966 Broadway show “The Lion in Winter (1966)” by James Goldman. The show is being revived at the James Lee Center Theater by Zemfira Stage.
“The Lion in Winter” may known to some audiences from its 1968 movie adaptation which won three Academy Awards including Best Actress for Katherine Hepburn.
In an earnest production directed by Zina Bleck, audiences will be treated to pungent and comedic dialogue written to be dripping with on-target, well-timed sarcasm, scorn and derision. “The Lion in Winter”
is an imaginary account of Christmas in 1183 of a fictionalized King Henry II of England, his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, his young mistress and his three prince sons as they verbally joust among themselves mangling just about everything they touch.
“Does it matter what comes after us?” Eleanor asks; “Can’t we love one another just a little?” is at the crux of this play full of still fresh dialogue and full of zingers.
“The Lion in Winter” explores plenty of modern themes even as it takes place almost a millennium ago. There are family dysfunction, political maneuvering, sibling rivalries, how spite can affect people, fear of aging, and what might or might not be left behind once death comes.
There are many scenes of changing allegiances, conspiracies, schemes and marital jealousy. The script is a feast of one-liners.
The burning inner lives of the protagonists and the ways each is presented are key to the ultimate success and enjoyment of any production of “The Lion in Winter.” The Zemira cast has its work cut out for it with this dialogue-centered play with required pin-point timing, nuanced emotional delivery with the bite of bile followed by crumbs of tenderness.
There is the thundering Henry II (Jim Mitchell) the 50-something King, still vigorous but knowing that darkness will be visible to him all too soon. For he is the lion as the winter of his life begins to approach. Mitchell, large in stature and baritone voiced with a gravitas about him, is best at menacing bellows and dramatic flaring temper; less so when a thirst for affection and love is to be depicted.
An appealing Michelle Ballard plays Eleanor. Ballard provides a well shaded and nuanced performance. She can be storm-filled and furious; then within a split-second be a calm, serene presence, sodden with a stiletto of pointed sarcasm without missing a beat.
She comes at lines such as wanting to give up using a mirror since “quicksilver has no sense of tact” or confessing that “I don’t much like our children” with an expressive, world-weary touch.
Shaina Higgins plays the 20-something mistress of King Henry and sister to the newly crowned King Philip of France (Brett Steven Abelman, a doppelganger of Michael J. Fox). Too often she seems a smidgen too wired--taut as she tries to find her way in the hot-house of the King’s family. Her charms, as visualized by King Henry, could reveal more sensuality if it is to be believed that the King Henry would throw-away everyone and everything to be with her.
The three sons are noticeably differentiated. There is the swaggering, rage-filled, macho Richard the Lionheart (Don Bruns); the sniffling, bratty, annoying ferret-like John (Will MacLeod) and the cerebral, conniving, manipulator Geoffrey (Andrew Tipper).
The technical design work of lighting designer Stacy King, sound designer Herb Tax and scenic artist Alexa Wilson merit notice. Their work and partnership move the production forward beginning with the evocative pre-show music that aligns the audience with the time period.
The Zemfira production of “The Lion in Winter” has a goodly share of highlights as the actors work hard to bring the very active dialogue and human foibles into scale.