The Lion in Winter follows Henry II as he gathers his family at Chinon (then a part of Brittany, now a part of France) for Christmas 1183. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitane, has secured a temporary release from prison, where she's been locked up on her husband's orders for nearly a decade. This is no big deal: Middle Ages royals tend to treat one another horribly, even when they're related by marriage, blood, or both (as is the case here). Also at Chinon are Henry's three sons, King Philip of France, and Alais, Henry's lover and the potential future bride of one of his sons.
Everyone at Chinon wants something. Each of Henry's sons wants to marry Alais and become heir to the throne. Alais wants to marry Henry. Eleanor wants her freedom and wants her eldest son Richard, who would become known as Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade to assume the crown upon Henry's death. Henry wants to get his marriage annulled, to marry Alais himself and ensure that his youngest son, John, becomes heir to the throne. King Philip wants to get western France back from Brittany. These people are all desperate and obsessive. They are devious, utterly without morals, and devastatingly good liars. Happy Christmas!
In fact, it is a happy Christmas. The general sentiment of The Lion in Winter is that, despite occasional rebellions, assassination attempts, imprisonments, infidelities, sodomy, gross dishonesty, and the wholesale slaughter of peasants well, families simply must stick together, and they'll feel good about themselves if they do. Wrapping this concept of through-thick-and-thin-togetherness around such bad behavior, intrigue, and betrayal should be ridiculous, but in this instance, it's heartwarming. That's why James Goldman is so goddamned cool.
But you already knew that. I'd rather tell you about Pat Nesbit, because she's cool too.
Early in her life, Eleanor of Aquitane led a bunch of women off to the Second Crusade dressed as Amazons. She lived for 82 years, survived numerous kidnap attempts, ruled England as regent well into old age, and shaped the Western world more than any other woman of the 12th Century. Katherine Hepburn was able to play her in 1968, because Katherine Hepburn was the most bad-ass lady in the history of Hollywood. Any actress who thinks about taking the role now should rightfully quake in her boots. It takes watermelon-sized balls of iron to even think about treading on Hepburn's territory. Pat Nesbit makes it look easy.
She stole the show in Caldwell's production of Steel Magnolias early this year, but then she was playing Ouiser a crowd-pleasing lollipop role that's written to steal the show anyway. Eleanor is a lot harder. You have to show cunning and hint at hidden reservoirs of strength and at deep aquifers of feeling. You have to deploy regal, courtly humor as a defense mechanism without ever letting on that it's only that: a defense. You must be composed, brilliant, occasionally vulnerable, and at all times larger-than-life. Pat Nesbit does all of this and more. It's thrilling. Go see it.
Also, go for the three sons' bickering. In terms of back-stabbing son-of-a-bitchness, these boys put the biggest cannibals in the federal government to shame. Mark Whittington's Prince John is a whining, pathetic bastard, all breast-hogging infantilism and slobbering greed. Michael Polak's Prince Richard is a lost soul he wants to be a good boy, but he's too neurotic, bitter, and jealous to make it stick. Terrell Hardcastle's Prince Geoffrey is a calculating brain-bot: sort of a Middle Ages Kissinger with less soul. You want to smack him, but you also get the feeling that he just needs a big, warm hug.
Erin Joy Schmidt's Alais is brave and cheerful, but there's something vaguely tragic about her sunny outlook. There's a sense that she's in over her head, in love with a man who, contrary to all appearances, can never be half so interested in her as he is in himself. Bruse Linser's King Philip is wary and laconic and winds a bright ribbon of suppressed rage through even his tamest, drollest lines. It hints at things to come, and watching him work up to his nasty denouement is a pleasure.
If there's a weak link in the cast, it's Curt Hostetter as Henry II. He's a great proclaimer and pronouncer, as all kings must be, but he does tend to bellow so. There is too much of this bellowing, and it comes on too quickly. When it works, it's vast and kingly; the rest of the time, Hostetter just seems drunk and foolish.
But kings can and often do get drunk and foolish, so let's not quibble. Especially since director Michael Hall likely amped up the sound and fury to underline the fact that most of the onstage viciousness is done with a wink. This is, after all, central to both the play's appeal and its core statement: We will ruin each others' lives today, we'll be friends again tomorrow, and that's life in a nutshell. If Hall hadn't made this so abundantly clear with the help of Hostetter's silly eruptions, The Lion in Winter would be vastly less interesting.
A brief word about scenic designer Tim Bennett: Caldwell, you must keep this man around. I hardly ever talk about sets, because talking about sets is a great way to establish yourself as a king-hell bore of a critic. But Jesus, this version of Chinon is really outstanding. Cavernous stone rooms; arches occupied alternately with tapestries, doors, casks and empty space to delineate different locations within the castle; the massive backward-projection screen that creates the impression of stained glass, painting, sculpture, rock gorgeous, gorgeous stuff. Nicely done, Caldwell. Somewhere, James Goldman is smiling.