The Rep’s 'Lion' Roars with Humor, Heart

 In Culture

If you didn’t get enough family drama over the holidays (or even if you did) James Goldman’s endlessly wry story of the 12th Century’s most powerful man and his scheming family hits all the right notes in “The Lion in Winter.”  Under the direction of Edward Stern, it’s a feast of wit, breathtaking ambition and despair that runs through Jan. 31 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Angela Janas and Jeffrey King. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Angela Janas and Jeffrey King. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

As Henry II, Jeffrey King is the master of the light-hearted, throwaway line (which is probably most loyal to the original Robert Preston performance on stage in 1966):  living in the shadow of his own mortality over Christmas, 1183. And Carol Schultz seems fearless in tackling the role of Queen Eleanor, immortalized by Katharine Hepburn in an Oscar-winning performance in the 1968 movie. Both actors are delightful, and harrowing, by turns.

But the biggest surprise is the young mistress of the king, played by Angela Janas. In an unusually well-articulated performance, she makes the most of a part that could be merely piteous: transforming this Alais into someone who’s fully self-possessed, and frequently the equal of the Plantagenets that surround her.

Henry’s three sons are played by eminently proficient young actors, doing exactly what’s expected of them by the playwright, director and the audience. They’re so entirely predictable, though, that each of the princes is nearly upstaged by his own “character hair,” be it dashing or slick or fluffed-up in a poodle-perm.

Ryan Ward is terrifically charming as the young French king, adding fuel to the fires of family jealousy and regret (even his hair is charming). I didn’t sense any particular tension in his furtive, fumbling, romantic scene with Grayson DeJesus (as Richard the Lionhearted), but a young friend seated next to me did.

The set (by Joseph P. Tilford) suggests a museum’s Dark Ages wing, with bleached-white statues in glass cases. But costumer Matthew J. LeFebvre and the actors find the contrast to this clinical framework: becoming warm and ghostly and delightful.

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Richard Green has worked in (and around) St. Louis theater for nearly 40 years, and has been a critic here and in Chicago since 2001.

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