Pinnacle’s “Lion” Roars Into Life

James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter was first performed in 1966, and it has attracted a spate of well-respected actors over time. The play’s history boasts the like of Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Patrick Stewart, Glenn Close, and Christopher Walken; it seems nearly designed to strike fear into the heart of any would-be performers. But nearly half a century after the original play appeared, Pinnacle Acting Company is staging a wonderful production, and if the cast is intimidated by their predecessors, it certainly doesn’t show.

The Lion in Winter takes its inspiration from history, fictionalizing King Henry II (Morgan Lund, AEA) and his relationship with his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Teresa Sanderson). The action unfolds over Christmas 1193, set in Henry’s castle in Chinon, France. The play is Shakespearean in scope and subject matter; it doesn’t have to do much to dramatize the constant battle that royal families faced in trying to maintain their grip on the throne.

The cast is an impressive group of actors that can shoulder the humor, passion, and devastation of the script, which could easily give an audience a case of emotional whiplash if attention wanders for a mere moment. They skillfully handle the verbose and quick-witted material, often setting up elaborate insults and deploying their punch lines with delightful accuracy. As Henry, Lund is hale and in fine fettle, with a thunderous voice that commands attention the moment he enters a scene. It is easy to believe that this is a man that is still in his prime (or is convinced that he is). In Henry’s time, it was rare for a man to make it to 50 years of age, and Lund presents a king who is in the winter of his life, fiercely proud of his virility and the fact that he has outlived nearly all his contemporaries. He is fearless in Henry’s passionate rages and in his tender moments as well, and he is a true joy to watch. A scene near intermission where he disowns his children is devastating.

As Eleanor, Sanderson’s machinations are apparent, even if her motives are occasionally opaque. Sanderson is sultry, sharp-witted, and crushingly sad; predicting men’s moves has made her steely, but her concern for the well-being of her children and her lingering love for her alienated husband is plain to see. It was sometimes startling to hear other characters accuse Eleanor of simple treachery or disloyalty, so well does Sanderson present her all-consuming love-hate relationship with every one of them. Her manipulative brilliance is matched only by the depth of her regrets, and Sanderson explores both of these without reservation. She and Lund spark together in a marriage that is complicated by years of history and betrayal.

 

Henry’s vastly younger mistress, Alais (Sahara Hayes) cuts an elegant and upright figure on the stage. She is sweet and tireless in her devotion to Henry, and there is minimal discomfiture between the actors in spite of their significant age difference. Hayes effectively induces sympathy with her attempts to play and keep up with the political games that Henry’s family is playing. Though she is somewhat fidgety onstage, gripping her long purple scarf as a nervous habit, her Alais is a pawn that is desperate to stay under Henry’s hand, and she becomes more ruthless in attaining that goal throughout the plot. Any fidgeting aside, Hayes delivers a solid performance; her panic and pleading when she is going to be married off without her consent is a high point in an excellent show.

Henry and Eleanor’s sons, Richard (David Hanson), Geoffrey (Jared Larkin), and John (Bobby Cavalier) are a roiling mass of scheming and duplicity, but their moments of emotional depth are resonant. As Richard, Eleanor’s clear favorite, Hanson is a surly and embittered soldier, impatient with court politics but unwilling to extract himself from them, and the revelation that he has carried on an affair with Philip Capet, King of France (Bo Brady) adds an instant depth to the character; his pain when Philip betrays him is nearly palpable. Larkin’s Geoffrey is a cold and amoral strategist, and out of the three brothers, he is the one that most seems to enjoy playing the power game. His accusations of neglect are raw and hurting, but Larkin gives the audience a character that feels perhaps the closest to a pure villain. The closest character to a pure clown, however, is John. Cavalier delivers a mewling, spoiled teenager who is coddled by his father and constantly harassed and manipulated by his elder brothers. Most of the laughs in the play belong to Cavalier, whose comedic timing is fantastic; he cuts each joke with a distressed and pessimistic panic. He knows he cannot keep up with his family, but he doggedly attempts it, desiring the throne even at his young age. Seeing Larkin execute a resonant and flawlessly-timed thwap to Cavalier’s forehead is worth the price of your ticket alone.

Pinnacle’s The Lion in Winter is a well-oiled machine full of good acting, good comedy, and an endearing zeal. It deserves a large and diverse audience. It is impossible to say what the historical Henry and Eleanor would think of their portrayal, but it’s obvious that The Lion in Winter is an enduring classic that can still present fresh material for a group of actors.

Pinnacle Acting Company presents The Lion in Winter, November 1-3, 8-10, 15-17 at 7:30 PM at the Midvale Performing Arts Center: 695 West Center Street (7720 South), Midvale, UT. Tickets are $15 Online or At the Door and $13 Seniors/Students (w/ID). For tickets and information, go to http://www.pinnacleactingcompany.org or call 801.810.5793

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