"Power is the only fact." With that statement, Henry II encapsulates the moral structure of James Goldman's 1966 play, The Lion in Winter. As written, it is an uneasy comedy, at best, as it explores the internal dynamics of a family held together not by affection, but by a thirst for the throne that will be left vacant by the aging Henry's eventual death. Rebecca Pettys, directing her final play for Union College, has assembled a worthy cast that exploits the dark comedy and pathos of the play to its fullest.
The play is written as a star turn for two characters, and Dan Covington as Henry and Pettys (under the stage name Rebecca Ansary) as Eleanor do not disappoint. Covington plays Henry with the breezy bravado of a man who has proven himself to be the "ablest soldier of an able time." Throughout most of the first act, Covington portrays a grandmaster of the Machiavellian arts, an aficionado of the power play who is ready for the rest of the family to finally bend before his indomitable will and accept his youngest son John as the heir to the throne. Pettys' Eleanor, however, has made her yearly emergence from enforced isolation to trumpet Richard, the oldest and ablest of the sons. The interplay between Covington and Pettys is dazzling; alternating between feigned affection and acerbic savagery, they paint a hilariously uncomfortable picture of love marred by decades of jealousy and ambition. However, it is in their private, unguarded moments that Covington and Pettys fully realize their characters; both have a moment in the spotlight where they must come to terms with their roles in raising "children who would murder children." This human touch adds much needed emotional depth to the cruel wit of the remainder of the play.
As for the murderous children, Brad Fulton (Richard), Sam Anderson (Geoffrey), and Allen Cole (John) are faced with the unenviable task of playing one-note, thoroughly unlikable characters, and they all succeed admirably. Fulton captures the stoicism and physicality of Richard, but it is in his small gestures and occasional expressions that he breathes life into the role. Anderson and Cole play well off one another as the calculating schemer and the low-minded idiot, respectively; their occasional alliance seems improbable in the text, but the chemistry between the two makes it work on the stage.
The rest of the cast does well with roles that are severely underdeveloped in Goldman's play. Emily Baker as Alais, Henry's young love interest and one-time ward, is given little to do but fret over her precarious position as king's mistress and prize for the eventual winner of the throne. She exists to capture the audience's sympathy, and she does. Chris Adams' Phillip, King of France, is better developed in the early stages of the play. As a young king, he seems to have the potential to become a formidable rival to Henry, alternately fawning and threatening. He vanishes from the play, however, after orchestrating a familial disintegration worthy of Henry himself, and the audience is left to wander what else Adams could have done given a meatier role.
The set and lighting are understated, but well-utilized. The focus of the play is on the characters, and it was a wise decision by all involved to avoid the temptation of a lavish historical re-enactment. Rector Little Theatre is an intimate space, and the staging of the play reinforces the idea that the audience is eavesdropping on the worst moments in a family's history. As the last performance of Pettys' career at Union College, it is fitting that she uses the theater ultimately not as spectacle, but as an instrument for probing the oft-hidden areas of humanity, showing the comedy and tragedy that potentially exist in every set of human relationships.
The last performance of The Lion in Winter was presented at the Rector Little Theatre on March 31.