It’s been more than a decade since a full-length theater production was staged at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theater. And what better selection to mark the occasion than James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter”?
The 1966 play takes audiences back to the High Middle Ages. After decades on the throne, King Henry II must decide which of his three sons will succeed him and carry on his legacy. For nearly 50 years, TheatreVirginia staged shows at the museum until it closed in 2002 — leaving the city without an Equity company.
The question of carrying on this legacy is one that Richmond theatergoers have pondered since the museum expanded with a new wing in 2010, and perhaps this is what Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre’s artistic director, Jan Powell, had in mind when choosing this classic script.
It’s Christmas 1183 and Henry has let Eleanor of Aquitaine out of prison for the holiday. Ten years earlier, his wife convinced their sons to rebel against him, and she’s been locked away ever since. The family has convened at Henry’s castle in Chinon, France, and has decided that it’s the perfect time to fight for who will be the king’s successor.
Complicating this decision is that Henry’s had a nearly decade-long affair with a French princess, Alais, who has been promised to the next king. Alais’ brother, King Philip, has arrived at Chinon, demanding a wedding to the next king or a return of the dowry.
David Bridgewater commands the stage as Henry, full of fire and hitting the right mix of bluster and humor. He delights in outwitting his opponents, and he brings a regal presence to the show. His character is the one around which all the others must dance.
Every Henry needs a formidable Eleanor, and this production has found it in Melissa Johnston Price. After 10 years in prison, Eleanor’s ice has begun to melt, and her cold calculations are interspersed with moments of genuine heartbreak over what her sons have become. Price’s wry tone hits her one-liners just right — including my favorite about her backstabbing family: “It’s 1183, and we’re still barbarians.” Like Henry, she worries about her legacy, and when he threatens an annulment that would disown his sons, she stands to lose everything.
Henry wants to give the crown to John, but the teenager — played with foppish comicalness by Dixon Cashwell — is ill-suited to the demands of being king. Eleanor prefers Richard as successor, portrayed by a strong, brooding Alexander Sapp.
As neither parent’s favorite, David Janosik finds the humor in the calculating Geoffrey, working hard to outmaneuver everyone. Evan Nasteff exudes ego and youth as King Philip, and Audra Honaker’s Alais attempts the chess game everyone is wrapped up in only to realize that she is just a pawn.
Goldman’s gem of a script mixes real dramatics with great one-liners, and West Coast import Jon Kretzu turns in a solid Richmond directorial debut. Joshua Bennett’s two-level set allows for plenty of eavesdropping and looks the part, though it seems unlikely that Chinon would have a Christmas tree: Those didn’t exist until centuries later.
“The Lion in Winter” is another strong offering from Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street’s impressive and well-executed season. To quote from Eleanor again, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” S
Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare’s “The Lion in Winter” plays through Feb. 28 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Blvd. Call 340-0115 or visit henleystreetheatre.org.