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I know what you’re thinking. How dare the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre stage another community-theater production of James Goldman’s Tony Award®-winning historical drama The Lion in Winter in its miniscule performance space in the Greystone Village Shopping Center so soon after the critically acclaimed May 5-15, 2005 Theatre in the Park presentation starring Triangle theater legends Ira David Wood III and Lynda Clark as 12th century English King Henry II and his estranged wife and would-be nemesis, Eleanor of Aquitaine?
The answer is, The Lion in Winter is a provocative play with a lot of meaty roles to challenge a community-theater cast to do their best work, even if the production must be produced on a shoestring. Done for a veritable song, scenic designer Mike West’s simple evocation of the play’s castle settings in Chinon, France, with wallpaper, a false fireplace, a mantle and assorted tables and chairs, cannot hold a candle to the infinitely more elaborate and expensive medieval settings devised by set designer Stephen J. Larson for TIP. But West’s minimalist set helps speed the play along, as the tension between the hopelessly dysfunctional royal family ratchets up, notch by notch, as father and mother and sons and the visiting King of France and his sister betray each other over and over again.
Bruce Ekenbarger and Sheila Outhwaite roar as Henry and Eleanor, an aging lion repeatedly baited by the rebellious lioness whom he normally keeps caged but has let out for Christmas 1183 in hopes that he can hoodwink her out of the important French province that is her birthright. Ekenbarger’s Henry is a menacing, stop-shouldered, growly man who, first, tries to win by intimidation and, ultimately, digs deep into his considerable bag of tricks to try to con his opponents into giving him what he wants.
Ekenbarger’s performance has the requisite passion, but not always the polish of the conniver in chief of 12th century England. But Sheila Outhwaite is terrific from start to finish. She is one of this area’s most underrated actresses, but with a couple of more bravura performances like this one she is sure to lose her anonymity.
Christopher Bynum adds a passionate performance as Henry and Eleanor’s oldest son, the utterly fearless warrior but equally inept diplomat Richard the Lionhearted; and Bennett Guild is amusing as their cowardly youngest son and Henry’s anointed heir John, a smelly, pimply boy whose loyalty is available to the highest bidder. But Jonathan Fitts’ performance as the seething and increasingly resentful middle son Geoffrey, whose wounded feelings Henry has tried to assuage by promising him that he will be John’s chancellor and actually run the kingdom, is a bit too wooden.
Brandy Dale Mace is a pistol as Henry’s adoring but temperamental 23-year-old mistress Alais; and Eric Gooden gives an impressive performance as Alais’ superficially indignant but always-calculating brother Philip, who wants Henry to fulfill their agreement marry his sister to Richard or return Alais and her sizable dowry.
Director Brian Lord does a good job of getting the best out of his cast members. But his decision to dress his stagehands as a head matron (Sandra Shelton) and five handmaidens (Stephanie Fenn, Andrea Koretsky, Monica Prudencio, Alex Stewart, and Alexis Vetrano) — and keep them on stage for most of the wrangling — makes scene changes faster, but is sometimes distracting.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre presents The Lion in Winter Friday-Saturday, June 9-10 and 16-17, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 11 and 18, at 3 p.m. at NRACT in the Greystone Village Shopping Center, 7713-51 Leadmine Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 evenings and $8 matinees. 919/866-0228. North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre: http://nract.org/ [inactive 4/08]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=5424. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063227/.