It’s a classic nighttime soap, that is if Dallas or Dynasty had been set in 12th-Century England. It’s a Shakespeare history, that is if you could understand every word the actors are saying. It’s a 1960s film classic that won Katharine Hepburn the third of her four Best Actress Oscars.

It’s Peter Goldman’s Broadway flop play-turned-Hollywood hit movie, and if (as Wikipedia puts it rather ungrammatically) “The Lion in Winter is fictional and none of the dialogue and actions is historical,” it still makes for one of modern American theater’s most entertaining dramas and offers actors some of the meatiest roles of their careers—proof of which is now onstage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

TLIW 1 John Rafter Lee is Henry II, 50, King of England circa 1183, and Diane Hurley is Eleanor of Aquitaine, 61, Henry’s long-estranged spouse whom he’s kept locked up for assorted treacheries over the past ten years, the last seven of which he’s spent canoodling with teenaged King Phillip II of France’s 20something sister Alais (pronounced Alice), who grew up alongside Henry’s boys and whom Eleanor once considered the next best thing to a daughter. (Very soapy indeed, n’est-ce pas?)

To celebrate this year’s Christmas Eve the good old family way, Henry has released Eleanor from her tower (albeit temporarily), reuniting parents, children, and (opposite and same-sex) lovers (or former lovers) under the same royal roof.

Let the machinations begin.

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With eldest son and heir Prince Henry having met his maker the summer before, a decision must now be made as to who will wear the royal crown upon King Henry’s death. Will it be Richard (Adam Burch), 26, the apple of his mother’s eye who will sit upon his father’s throne? Will Henry’s favorite John (James Weeks), 16, succeed Henry II as His Majesty The King? Or will middle son Geoffrey (Clay Bunker), 25, manage to scheme his way to the top of the list?

Complicating matters is the presence of 17-year-old King Phillip II of France (Macleish Day), whose father’s treaty with Henry promised a royal wedding between Princess Alais (Alison Lani)—now Henry’s teen mistress as you will recall—and the future English King, regardless of whichever of Henry’s son gets picked.

Has there ever been a headier recipe for drama on a majestic scale?

Directed with assurance and panache by Michael Cooper, The Lion In Winter is but the latest step in the venerable Sierra Madre Playhouse’s emergence as one of L.A.’s finest 99-seat-plan theaters—if only they could get the word out just how terrific this no-longer-a-community- theater has become.

Performances could hardly be better (though dialect consistency surely could, the cast’s accents ranging from BBC British to “Mid-Atlantic” to Standard American).

TLIW 1 As O’Toole and Hepburn so richly demonstrated back in 1968, The Lion In Winter offers its two leads considerable dramatic meat to chew on, and chew on it Lee and Hurley most certainly do—and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways. Henry and Eleanor are not roles to be played small, nor should “small” actors dare attempt them. Regardless of physical stature, both Lee and Hurley give towering performances that would be equally at place on a major regional theater stage. Whether it’s Lee’s Henry railing à la King Lear at his treacherous progeny or Hurley’s Eleanor wrying quipping “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” or any of the duo’s many bravura moments, these are two of the most delectable performances you will see any time soon.

The three would-be Kings acquit themselves quite splendidly as well, from Burch’s defiant Richard to Bunker’s conniving Geoffrey to Weeks’ petulant John. Recent Chicago-to-L.A. transplant Lani makes a powerful impression as a young woman unwilling to be a pawn of the English royals, as does Day in his droll, seductive turn as Prince Philip.

The Lion In Winter looks and sounds great on the Playhouse’s classic proscenium stage, from Gary Wissman’s simple but stunning set, gorgeously lit by Sierra Madre secret weapon Sammy Ross, to Carlos Brown’s roughly-hewn period costumes to Barry Schwam’s sound design, highlighted by Robby Roth’s original 12th Century-esque carols, the latter essential during the production’s many lengthy but not overlong scene changes. (Only Henry’s distractingly 20th Century boot soles prove a design minus.)

Josephine Austin is stage manager and Liam Rudisill assistant stage manager. The Lion In Winter is produced by Tim Orona. Estelle Campbell is executive producer.

A bunch of 2012-2013 Scenie wins for Driving Miss Daisy (including Best Production Drama), The Fantasticks (Best Production Musical, among others), and God’s Man In Texas provided ample evidence of the 20+-year-old Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “arrival” as one of L.A.’s finest intimate houses. The same can be said for this first-class revival of Peter Goldman’s enduring classic. This Lion In Winter roars majestically indeed.

Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Through November 16. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:30. Reservations: 626 355-4318
www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

–Steven Stanley
September 28, 2013
Photos: Gina Long

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