"How, from where we started, did we ever reach this Christmas?" Eleanor of Aquitaine asks her husband, King Henry, during one of their tumultuous confrontations in "The Lion in Winter." A couple of scenes later, Henry inadvertently answers her question when he comments, "We can't stop, and we can't go back."
Pinnacle Acting Company's production of James Goldman's wickedly witty play passionately captures this unrelenting manipulation and jockeying for position and the accelerating frustration of continually returning "to places that failed [them] before," as Tennessee Williams puts it. The momentum injected by L.L. West's direction and incisive performances, especially by Morgan Lund and Teresa Sanderson as Henry and Eleanor, propel this production.
It is 1183, and King Henry II of England has convened his fragmented family for the holidays to determine who will succeed him. His strong-willed wife, Eleanor, wants their eldest son, the impetuous and ambitious Richard (David Hanson). Henry favors John (Bobby Cavalier), the sniveling, not-too-bright youngest. And that leaves the middle son, Geoffrey (Jared Larkin), a young man his father describes as "he isn't flesh: he's a device; he's wheels and gears," to cleverly ally himself with the most likely brother as fortune and power shift back and forth.
To muddy matters further, Henry will be forced to marry the French princess, Alais (Sahara Hayes), who has become his mistress, to the son who becomes king. And her brother, King Philip of France (Bo Brady), has come to court to make sure the wedding takes place with the ownership of several French provinces in the balance. So when Henry jokingly asks, "What shall we hang? The holly or each other?" it sounds less and less like a rhetorical question.
West's taut direction crackles with tension, and the charismatic coupling of Lund and Sanderson makes the moments when they collide compelling and memorable, especially the first scene of Act II, where they rail at each other, fall into a frenzied embrace, then go at each other some more. Lund's Henry is a big blustering bully of a man who is used to having his own way, but Sanderson's Eleanor matches him in determination. She is a woman who has had to find ways to survive in a man's world at the expense of compassion or caring. Yet both actors reveal flashes of something softer in their complex characterizations.
Their sons are the victims of their unquenchable struggle for power. Hanson's Richard is a forceful man of action who has a secret, more sensitive side. Cavalier's John is whiny and weak, and his body language suggests a spoiled child. And Larkin's calculating, conniving Geoffrey slithers between them like a poisonous snake.
The weak links in the cast are Brady and Hayes. Brady is neither dominant nor devious enough as Philip, and while Hayes looks beautiful as Alais, her characterization lacks the steely strength and resourcefulness that bolster the young princess' fragility.
Grady McEvoy's set combines the coldness of stone with plenty of curtained doorways for people to hide behind, and the rich colors and rough textures of Catherine Zublin's costumes convey the feeling of winter.
"The Lion in Winter" is rarely performed these days, but with the right actors and director, its brittle dialogue and endless energy provide a compelling portrait of the price that power and ambition exact on family relationships.
Pinnacle Acting Company's dynamic and often funny production demonstrates that well-written plays like "The Lion in Winter" always have something to say to us.
When • Reviewed Nov. 2; continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through Nov. 17, with a matinee on Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.
Where • Midvale Performing Arts Center (old City Hall), 695 W. Center St. (7720 South), Midvale
Tickets • $15; $13 for students and seniors. Call (801) 810-5793 or visit www.pinnacleactingcompany.org for tickets or information.
Running time • Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)