The Lion in Winter

Rated 3.0 This sturdy (if not stellar) production hits most of the strong points of James Goldman’s perennially popular script, which turns up regularly in community theater productions. The setting is medieval France. The story—involving an aging but still hardy king, stymied by the choice between three flawed sons who hope to succeed him—hints at things Shakespearean.Jon Jackson (a recent master-of-fine-arts graduate from UC Davis) does well as Geoffrey, the middle son. He has a good head for intrigue but not enough morals to keep the country on course. Dean Shellenberger plays Richard Lionheart, the oldest surviving son. He’s a talented military man, but he’s impulsive. Derrick Karimian rounds out the trio as John, the whiny youngest son. Brian Gruber is King Henry II, who realizes his time is running out but can’t let go.

Shelly Sandford is particularly good as the king’s estranged wife, Eleanor. She’s held prisoner by her husband most of the time, but she still lobbies and plots on behalf of her favorite son. Sandford mixes sweetness and sarcasm with strategy and sadness, making Eleanor the dominant character in this production.

The play is not a tragedy, though it seems poised for such an outcome. This story is more about how these characters scheme to make alliances and how they frustrate each other yet never actually kill another member of the family. Crowns, robes and medieval trappings notwithstanding, the dialogue sounds quite contemporary. The Lion plays like a comedy—hitting several Samuel Beckett-like stale- mates—although there are plenty of nasty schemes afoot.

The script also features several staggeringly beautiful, bleak speeches (though these aren’t always delivered in tip-top form). Still, director Lydia Venables realizes enough of the potential to mold this production into winning entertainment.