By Eric Marchese
12:00 AM PDT, September 9, 2015
It was 1966, a year after Costa Mesa Playhouse opened, that James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" appeared on Broadway. Two years later came the film version, with Peter O'Toole as King Henry II of England and Katharine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor using their sons as pawns in a battle for supremacy.
Goldman's rich script is an always entertaining psychological chess match. In Costa Mesa, it's also a fine historical and family drama, sure-footedly directed by Timothy P. Thorn, generally well cast by him and capably performed by his actors.
It's Christmastime in the year 1183, and Henry (Peter Stone) and his family have gathered at his castle in Chinon – part of the rich French lands of the Angevin Empire he won in battle and, decades earlier, by marrying Eleanor (Jenny McGlinchey).
Henry has had Eleanor imprisoned for treason for 10 years, but she still wields power and influence. She wants eldest son Richard (Garrett Chandler) to succeed Henry, inherit the valuable lands of the Aquitaine and marry Alais Capet (Victoria Serra), sister to the king of France.
Determined to thwart Eleanor, Henry backs youngest son John (Myles Warner) as the next king. Ignored by both parents is middle son Geoffrey (Matt Kirchberg), conceded to be the most intelligent yet the coldest of the three sons.
Goldman's text indeed plays like a sporting match, with Henry and Eleanor making moves and counter-moves, thrusts and parries. All three sons are drawn into the intrigue, becoming both players and pieces in the game.
Other pawns who are also players are King Philip (Dan Marino), who insists Alais marry Richard or he'll take back the Aquitaine, and Alais, who has become Henry's mistress and is in love with him.
With such cold, Machiavellian characters, we're more apt to laugh than to care. We do laugh, but we also care, especially when Goldman lets them show genuine feeling and passion.
What drives any production of "Lion" is, of course, Goldman's sharp-edged script and the witty, pointed, often memorable dialogue he gives his characters. Thorn's cast members have perfected their roles and lines, which must be a pleasure to speak each night.
McGlinchey effects the only true British accent, with Chandler using a lighter cadence – a real shame, because the American English of everyone else creates a discrepancy that's hard to ignore. Non-accents aside as a factor, Stone and McGlinchey carry the day, with exceptionally good work from Chandler, Marino and Serra.
Wonderfully spontaneous, Stone isn't a robust, roaring lion in the winter of his years – he's more of an avuncular, brainy, exasperated monarch nearing the end of his rope in terms of both years and patience.
Henry is boxed in by his own choices, and the terrible, King Lear-like epiphany that forces him to disown and curse his three sons is just one of Stone's many masterful moments.
The focus of CMP's staging, Eleanor is still possessive of her place by Henry's side and her position as queen, a strong woman with huge appetites. McGlinchey brings a regal bearing to the role along with touches of Hepburn and shades of Kathleen Turner – not imitative, but in service of the role.
Goldman makes it obvious that Henry still adores Eleanor for her nimble mind and indomitable spirit, even if his love for her died long ago. Their banter is peppered with historical (and highly personal) references, and their complex relationship is what makes "Lion" roar.
Chandler has Richard's brittle pride, commanding bearing and humorless nature. Warner's John is indeed juvenile (John was 16), petulant and cowardly, and Kirchberg's Geoffrey is bitter, the ignored dog never tossed a bone. Geoffrey, though, demands a more ruthless, more devious, harsher reading, and in Act 2, the roles of Geoffrey and John are too similarly defined as sulky.
Alais is often apoplectic at being used as a bargaining chip, yet tainted by the cruelty around her, and Serra's complex, moving portrayal shows Alais' tangible sorrow.
Marino's Philip is smarter than anyone gives him credit for. He's nicely, airily dismissive of Geoffrey and John, demands Richard's respect, and is determined not to be bullied by the sneakier and more powerful Henry while thirsting for vengeance upon him.
Thorn's fantastically expansive set design is gloomy yet majestic, stretching the entire width and depth of the playhouse stage, its rock, wood and tapestries creating the look of 12th-century Western Europe. Stephanie Thomas' costumes, with characters clad in furs, skins, leather and durable fabrics, are equally tactile and pleasingly authentic.
'The Lion in Winter'
When: Through Sept. 20. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
How much: $20 ($18 seniors/students)
Length: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Suitability: All ages