Going home for the holidays can mean many things. For some, it’s an opportunity to relax in the warmth of a familiar setting. For others, it’s an opportunity to show what’s been accomplished in the year that has passed, and to share that success with those closest. But, even in the best-behaved of households, as often as not, that holiday sharing drifts inexorably toward comparing, and the promised relaxation slips imperceptibly into competition, some of it implicit, and all of it potentially damaging. In The Lion in Winter, Henry II, king of England in 1183, has invited his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons John, Geoffrey, and Richard Lionheart, to share the holidays with him and a pair of French nobles, King Philip of France and his half-sister, Alais, at Chinon Castle. The subtext of this fraught gathering is particularly rich, as Eleanor has a history of fomenting insurrection against her husband with the help of her sons and has spent the last 10 years as Henry’s prisoner. The play follows the progress of their royal reunion as it crisscrosses the ambitious paths taken by Henry’s sons, each of whom believes himself to be the rightful heir to his throne.
As Henry II, Eric Pierpoint is splendidly regal and physically intimidating — clearly still a man in the prime of his authority, if not the height of his youthful virility. Against this paternal mountain of a backdrop, sons Richard (Rick Cosnett), Geoffrey (Ross Hellwig), and John (Daniel David Stewart) each occupy distinct postures of filial revolt. Richard, true to his historical legend, embodies the martial impulse, although playwright James Goldman delivers a surprising twist to this portrait that it would be criminal to divulge in a review. As Richard, Cosnett commands the small Alhecama auditorium with the show’s most powerful voice and a threatening, pent-up physical characterization. As John, Stewart takes the opposite approach, offering up a pampered son of privilege who believes he can get his way by whining and scheming. The middle brother, Geoffrey, gives Hellwig the chance to be more rounded and realistic — by turns the aggressor and the mediator in this house of endless conflict.
The play opens on the king alone with Alais, his young French mistress. Thea Brooks is excellent in this key role, which requires her to skirt the fiery tempers not only of both her lover and his sons but also of Eleanor, who has raised her since she was a girl and who at times still manages to fulfill the maternal role in her life. Paul David Story gets some of the night’s most exciting and humorous turns as Philip, the worldly 17-year-old who has recently attained the crown of neighboring France and who intends to use the division among Henry’s progeny to his own political advantage.
The biggest crowd-pleaser of all in this family romance writ large is Stephanie Zimbalist as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Supremely witty and saturated with ambivalence, the role suits Zimbalist perfectly, and she has a ball with it, rampaging through her many scenes with Pierpoint and the boys at full throttle and driving the action forward even when she is at her most helpless and bereft. Despite its apparent lack of the cozy complacencies one associates with typical holiday fare, this Lion belongs in winter and will give good cheer, albeit of a mostly intrigue- and ambition-colored variety, to all who attend to its very festive message.