The Lion in Winter

When you lack the capacity to love your fellow man, what is there to seek after? Power. “The Lion in Winter” explores that subject with black, calloused humor and an eye for finding the lowest traits of humanity.

It’s Christmas 1183, and the royal family of England is together: “What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” asks King Henry (Richard Elmore). And that pretty much sums things up: “The Lion in Winter” is a bitter comedy in which all members of the family hate each other relentlessly and delight only in hurting one another. (“That’s the most dreadful lie of all!” bellows the king. “I know,” answers his wife. “That’s why I saved it for last.”)

The only one who displays any honest love for any length of time is Alais (Stephanie Foster Breinholt), a French gal serving as Henry’s mistress. Everyone else manages to love someone for a few minutes — but it is fleeting, as they discover they can’t trust anyone long enough to love them.

Henry and his wife Eleanor (Leslie Brott), whom he has imprisoned in a castle because of her tendency to lead civil wars against him, have three living sons and three prizes to offer: the throne (once Henry dies), the hand of Alais, and the land of Aquitaine.

Why not give each son one prize and let them all be happy? Because Henry doesn’t want his kingdom divided up.

Richard (Ty Burrell) is a strong, handsome warrior, and the oldest — a likely candidate for kingship, except Henry thinks he’s too much like his mother — plus, he’s Eleanor’s favorite, and Henry despises him. Henry wants the youngest son, the dunderheaded John (Russ Benton), to be heir. In the middle is Geoffrey (Jay Russell), a shrewd, smarmy tactician who wants the crown, too, but knows he can only get it by discrediting his brothers.

Elmore’s Henry is the title character, speaking in a roaring swagger and clearly revelling in his position of power. Russell’s Geoffrey is a snotty delight, communicating mostly with arched eyebrows and sardonic stares, and Burrell is strong as Richard (a character with more depth to him than you may at first think).

Benton, as John, sometimes seems too clownish and silly in a play that is otherwise quite dignified, even erudite, in its dialogue and demeanor.

It is Eleanor who is really the main character, and Brott plays her brilliantly. The scenes in which the facades come down and we see her for the broken old woman she is are achingly good. Every character in the show is without hope, but Eleanor personifies that despair. Brott’s performance is nuanced and affecting, making an already-worthy show into something truly great.

This was the first show I saw at the festival -- the first of six crammed into three days, by the way -- and I was thrilled at how great it was. In preparation, I had watched the 1968 movie a couple weeks earlier, and I loved it, too. This really is a great play as long as it has great actors.

Katharine Hepburn was in the movie, and she's one classy dame. Powerful woman, that Kate. Well, not so much anymore, but when she was alive, there was no stopping her.