By Chris Trela, NB Indy
Theatrical historical fiction can be a tricky thing to write, let alone present on stage, although Shakespeare certainly had no trouble in both departments.
Other authors have tackled historical fiction with mixed results. One of the most successful is “The Lion in Winter,” written by James Goldman. It premiered on Broadway at the Ambassador Theatre on March 3, 1966, starring Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Eleanor.
The play was adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1968 film of the same name, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, whose star turn as Eleanor won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The play has been produced numerous times, including Broadway and West End revivals.
Now, it’s Laguna Playhouse’s turn. “The Lion in Winter,” which opens this weekend and runs through Nov. 24, stars TV and theatre veterans Frances Fisher (“Titanic,” “Native Gardens,” “Barbeque”), as Eleanor, and Gregory Harrison (“Trapper John, M.D.,” Broadway’s “Chicago,” “Steel Pier”), as King Henry II.
The plot is simple, yet fascinating. It’s Christmas 1183, and King Henry II is planning to announce his successor to the throne. The jockeying for the crown is complex. Henry has three sons and wants his boy, Prince John, to take over. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor, has other ideas. She believes their son Prince Richard should be king. As the family and various schemers gather for the holiday, each tries to make the indecisive king choose their option.
The play is comedic in tone yet dramatic in action as the tale of the Plantagenet family is played out like a more grounded “Game of Thrones.”
“The Lion in Winter” is directed by Sheldon Epps, who spent 20 successful years as Artistic Director of Pasadena Playhouse before leaving in 2017 to spend more time directing. Laguna Playhouse audiences will recognize Epps as the director of “Blues in the Night” and “Beauty and the Beast: A Christmas Rose” at the Playhouse last season.
Epps said that he and the cast did a lot of research on the time period and the characters before rehearsals started, and then they shared what they learned during the first week of rehearsals.
“The challenge is to not try to overload the play with too much historical thinking and analysis,” said Epps. “The playwright, James Goldman, readily admitted that the play is based on history and real characters, but the story he created is one of his own imagination. It’s our job to use the research where valuable and to let it go when it is not. The research is valuable, but it is only a tool to discovering the truth of the story as it exists in the play.”
Actress Frances Fisher starred in “Native Gardens” at Pasadena Playhouse earlier this year, but Epps has not had a chance to work with her until now, although he said that he “admired her work in that play and in so many other things” that he has seen. “I have also been hoping to work with Gregory for a long time, and have seen him onstage many times,” he said.
Epps noted that the rest of the cast is exactly what he wanted, although it will still be tricky for him to guide the actors in achieving the right tonal balance in the play.
“The best way to approach it is to keep it honest and truthful, and not dive toward either end; both the comedy and the drama come from grounding the characters in truthful behavior. It’s never effective to either try to be funny or to be dramatic.”
Ultimately, said Epps, he wants to the play to feel “immediate and relevant.”
“Oddly, for a play that is set so many centuries ago, I hope that our audiences will see themselves in these characters,” added Epps. “Despite the period setting, the play is really about contemporary values including family dynamics. It’s about power, and surprisingly, about love. Watching this royal family go through the complications of the former to achieve the latter should be entertaining, challenging, and finally—I hope—very moving for an audience. Our great cast is working hard to make that happen.”
For tickets to “The Lion in Winter,” visit LagunaPlayhouse.com or call 949-497-ARTS (2787).