Family Feud: ‘The Lion in Winter’ at Thunder River in Carbondale
If You Go …
What: ‘The Lion in Winter,’ presented by Thunder River Theatre Company
Where: Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale
When: Dec. 12-14; 18-21, 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees 2 p.m.
Cost: $25/adults; $14/students; $17 for 20 & 30-somethings
Tickets and more info: www.thunderrivertheatre.com; 970-963-8200
If you’re anxious about butting heads with relatives at family gatherings this holiday season, your concerns are not unique. Nor are they new. Henry II of England and his brood, for instance, just couldn’t get along over Christmas in 1183 at the family castle in France.
In James Goldman’s acclaimed play “The Lion in Winter,” now enjoying an eight-show run at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale, the holiday gathering gets awkward when Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitane, shows up after he has imprisoned her for 10 years. From there, Eleanor and her three sons by Henry start scheming and fighting. The intrigue increases with the presence of a houseguest — Phillip, King of France, who also is Eleanor’s ex-husband’s son — and his half-sister, who is both Henry’s mistress and his son Richard’s fiancé.
Suddenly, your dysfunctional family’s holiday dinner doesn’t look so bad after all, does it?
The 1966 Tony Award-winning play, which two years later became an Academy Award-wining film starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, is a timeless work. The Thunder River production, directed by valley theater veteran Michael Monroney, aims to emphasize how the themes it explores have endured through the centuries.
“The script is amazing,” Monroney said this week. “It does a really good job of doing a time period that’s almost inconceivable today and puts it into a modern vernacular that’s easily accessible.”
Monroney has foregone building a castle set or putting together “Game of Thrones” styled costumes for a stripped-down vision of the play. Rather than using period-appropriate dress, which might alienate the audience from the perennial subject matter and story in “The Lion in Winter,” Monroney’s production places it in what he calls “a timeless fantasy land,” borrowing its style from steampunk rather than a Middle Ages court.
“The themes are of jealousy and the thirst for power, sibling rivalry, love-hate relationships between spouses,” Monroney said. “So, like the playwright did with the language, we’ve expanded on that and put it in a world that we think is accessible and timeless.”
The play stars Thunder River founder Lon Winston as Henry and Trary Maddalone as Eleanor. The company is in the midst of its 20th anniversary season, and is celebrating by bringing back some of its key performers from years past throughout the season’s four plays. Maddalone performed in the company’s first production, David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” two decades ago. The play also features current company members David Pulliam, as Henry’s son Richard, and Nick Garay as Philip.
Monroney noted that he and Winston know the material — and its mix of black comedy and intrigue — very well. Early in their acting careers, they each played the roles Pulliam and Garay in separate productions.
Making their Thunder River debuts in the production are Jaime Sklavos, Adam Solomon and Emery Major.
The play and its layers of double-dealing and mind games are a dream project for Monroney as a director, and for his cast, he said, which he hopes translates to the audience.
“You’re watching spectacular chess players,” Monroney said. “Everyone in the show, to some degree or another, is playing a game — they’re manipulating one another, thinking eight moves ahead.”
That element led Monroney to stage the play in-the-round at Thunder River. Seeing it in an arena-like atmosphere sets up the on-stage gamesmanship, purposefully, like a live chess or boxing match. Their set is relatively bare, with few props. Rather than attempt to match the verisimilitude of the 1968 film — or the 2003 TV movie adaptation with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close — Thunder River went for a minimalist production that emphasizes Goldman’s words and characters.
“It allows the audience to be our collaborator,” Monroney said. “They get to be the set designer and create the walls that we don’t give them in a literal sense.”
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