by Hugh Hunter
Old Academy Players opened its new season with a revival of “The Lion in Winter” (1966), by James Goldman, a play that garnered fame after the hit movie version with Katharine Hepburn (1968). Directed by Carla Childs and produced by Helga Krauss, the OA production kicks life into a drama that is not quite history, comedy or satire.
It is rooted in the revolt against Henry II (1173-74), in which Eleanor of Aquitaine conspired with her three sons to usurp the crown. They were abetted by greedy barons and popular outrage over the murder of Thomas Becket (1170). The revolt failed, the sons reunited with their father, and Eleanor was imprisoned until Henry’s death in 1189.
Goldman uses this history to create a fictional drama. In “Lion” Henry releases Eleanor for just a few days in 1183 so she can join the Christmas party at a castle in Chinon, France. We are never told why Henry would do this – and in historical fact it never happened – but how can you have a good family brawl when your best scrapper is kept in lockup?
Eleanor (Loretta Lucy Miller) is at the center of the mayhem. While you hear a Hepburn intonation on occasion, Miller has her own talents and excels in portraying zany characters. By her entire manner you see that Eleanor has no internal harmony and thrives on creating chaos. (Eleanor is also the mouthpiece for Goldman’s efforts at contemporary witticism.)
As Henry II, Michael Monroe pairs off splendidly with her. Monroe is comically picturesque as he contrasts Henry’s slovenly bearing with his vivid intellect. Henry stumbles about wearing a sloppy tunic, but his mind is on fire with cunning, wit and emotion.
The three sons, John (Evan McClelland), Geoffrey (Danny Donnelly) and Richard Lionheart (Nick Groch), all acted with fine flair. They all lust after the kingship, plotting against Henry and each other, while their parents connive to exploit the sons in pursuit of their own ambitions.
Two other characters bring into focus the amoral intensity of all this gamesmanship. Alais (Laura Seeley), a French princess, and Philip (Cory Meccariello), the young French king, are fresh-faced and diffident at first. But this family teaches them how to become vicious – the only “character growth” in the play!
I admired the production itself. In addition to the casting, the show creates atmospheric scene changes inside the castle with minimal fuss. And with this work the use of medieval incidental music is a natural choice.
But I cannot shake the idea that Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962) influenced Goldman and that the historical framework of “Lion” is just a glossy pretext for telling yet another story about people who exalt in ill will. And even as the Old Academy show entertains, you feel a little uneasy about sharing in its pleasures.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. “The Lion in Winter” will run through Sept. 28. Reservations available at 215-843-1109.