Holiday family get-togethers can often be fraught. Even the English monarchy has a rough yuletide, what with the plots to murder, stage a coup, annul a marriage, marry the mistress and imprison the sons — at least according to the dramatic comedy The Lion in Winter, staged by Brevard Little Theatre through Sunday, Dec. 16.
For the Plantagenet family in 1183 England, led by Henry II (portrayed by actor and Xpress contributor Kai Elijah Hamilton), the political is personal. They fight incessantly over who should inherit the throne once the king dies. He’s a worrisome 50-ish years old, which means he may have little time left to choose his male heir and keep his kingdom intact. His wife, the smart and politically savvy Eleanor of Aquitaine (Jennifer Memolo), knows the king better than anyone. The queen plots to thwart the king’s plans for succession and develops her own vision of who should rule: her favorite son, the menacing warrior, Richard (Garren Orr).
Director Jonathan Forrester describes The Lion in Winter as “a brilliantly written comedy/drama that is often compared in tone to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County.” The crackling chemistry between Memolo and Hamilton, as they trade barbs and affectionate embraces, captures the love-hate relationship of their. Henry, never faithful, always putting his passions for others and his love of power above all other considerations, grudgingly reveals a respect for his formidable opponent: his wife. Eleanor has her own plans and, just like her husband, manipulates her sons in order to ensure that the most capable, yet ruthless, of her male offspring inherits the throne.
The set design is marked by two levels — the upper castle rooms and the lower wine cellar. The castle rooms are arranged to highlight the interplay between warmth and darkness: warm hearth in the center, glowing torches on the walls, lights on a tree and a chessboard in a corner.
Once in a while, Henry or Eleanor glides over to the board and picks up a piece to mark their next move. Every conversation between them is a maneuver, a strategy meant to indicate that genuine feelings of love are weakness, and likely all statements are meant to advance the game.
In one masterful scene, the king and queen descend the stairs from the castle and present themselves to the public. With their regal, smiling faces in place for the crowd, they trade barbs while also keeping up appearances so that no one really knows the rot at the core.
The show’s energy hinges on the acting chops of Memolo and Hamilton to convey tenderness, passion, guile and charm. They are surrounded by a strong cast, which emphasizes the structure of the play around the power couple. The candor of the production, especially in regard to the sex lives of the queen, king, mistress Alais (Rachel Adams) and Prince Philip (Miles Rice), reminds the audience that all kinds of trysts and love affairs occurred in the past and today. The visage from afar may seem to be the heterosexual norm, but the truth is much more nuanced and reflective of reality.
WHAT: The Lion in Winter
WHERE: Brevard Little Theatre, American Legion Hall, 55 E. Jordan St., Brevard, thebrevardlittletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 16. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. $6-$18