"'Lion' still roars with endless life on stage"


March 18, 1998


Most veteran playgoers have a short list of plays of which they can't get enough.  For me, another chance to see James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" on stage is as satisfying as the 500th run through "Casablanca" is for the film buff.


At first glance "The Lion in Winter" seems like an unlikely candidate.  The subject is certainly obscure enough.  Who could possibly care what might have gone on between Henry II of England, his wife and four sons, his mistress and a royal house guest on Christmas Eve and Day 1183?  If the audience at Sunday's matinee is any indication, most of us don't even know which of England's Henrys this is.


For the record, this Henry is the husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the father of John (the king of Magna Carta fame) and Richard I (the lion-hearted crusader and king). For historical context, think back to the period just before Robin Hood.  Now 50, Henry wants an orderly succession that will keep his empire intact.  Hampering his dream are three ambitious sons of varying ability and minimal loyalty and a rebellious queen he has to imprison for his own protection.


But, as the production that opened Friday at the Theatre Factory in Trafford proved, it's not necessary to know any of that for this story of Henry Plantagenet and his family to reach across eight centuries and touch us.  Hidden inside the secret drawer of this 2 1/2 hour puzzle box of plots, schemes and swiftly shifting alliances is the familiar domestic question of who loves whom best.


Director Bill Mott and his design team wisely concentrate attention on the literate text and able cast.  Colorful, complex characters come to life against a spare black set of arches, steps and levels.


Howard Elson's Henry may hold the empire but it's Mary Rawson's Eleanor who drives this drama.  He needs to control the future.  But for her the battle is as important as the outcome.  "i care because you care so much," she tells Henry.


Elson shows Henry to best advantage in quiet moments of affection or deliberation.  Rawson makes Eleanor alternately vulnerable, strong, pitiable and admirable and very, very funny.   The performance sharpens whenever she's on stage.  Vaughn A. Challingsworth is delightfully sulky and whiny as the gloating, self-centered but dim-witted and adolescent John.

David Chase is a dynamic and likable Richard.  Jay Smith's Geoffrey changes sides effortlessly and without remorse.  Meaghan McKenna's Alais is a fragile and occasionally assertive pawn, and Aaron Macerelli weighs in as France's young King Philip.


"You know, I hope we never die," says Henry at play's end.  "I hope so, too," answers Eleanor.  They won't as long as performers such as these keep bringing them back to life.