Whatever embarrassing habits or off-putting behaviors your family may have, they pale next to the behavior of the Plantagenets at the holidays. As presented in James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter,” which opened Friday in a production to savor at the Guthrie Theater, this Middle Ages royal family defines extreme dysfunction, which, for us, translates into lots of laughs and occasional recognition.
Patriarch Henry II (Kevyn Morrow) is having a crisis. As the sovereign, he could have his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Laila Robins), executed by fiat, so that he can take a younger bride. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he has her locked up and now, at Christmas, 1183, he has let her out so that she can watch him kiss his pretty young thing, Alais Capet (Thallis Santesteban).
But Eleanor is not without power. She’s older and arguably smarter than Henry, who wants her consent. Despite her years in prison, her wits remain sharp and her tongue still cuts like a razor. And she’s got property that’s coveted by royalty far and wide, including her three sons with Henry, all of whom are vying to succeed their dad on the throne.
There’s coldblooded Richard (Torsten Johnson), effete John (Riley O’Toole) and no-account Geoffrey (Michael Hanna). Eleanor and Henry play the siblings against one another, manipulating them for sport. The boys hold no affection for their parents and would just as soon kill each of them to advance their own desires.
“Lion” is like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in that way, as a pair of powerhouses square off for our delight.
The action in Kevin Moriarty’s richly layered production takes place on a turntable set of multistory scaffolding by Beowulf Boritt and Christopher Ash. The scenography, in which different realms are lit as the Plantagenet’s world turns, recalls the tower of London. All the family is captive.
Goldman’s language is lyrical, sonorous and quite contemporary, despite the setting. The cast honors the playwright’s poetry with line readings that are deeply felt. Robins’ performance, especially, is one to remember. Her Eleanor is a woman of deep feelings who is true in the moment. She may scheme and plot. She may run circles around her children, who tell her to rot. But by finding the deep hunger and want of her character, and delivering her wit, she carries us along with her in her gorgeous, topsy-turvy performance.
Robins has an able scene partner in Morrow, who has great command of the language and mien of his capricious king. He, too, excels in the verbal jousting, thrilling theatergoers even as the show gives us reasons to appreciate our family.