‘The Lion in Winter’ depicts compelling extreme family drama

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“Well, what shall we hang . . . the holly, or each other?” Eleanor remarks, setting the tone for the royal family in focus: conniving and cunning, with an almost nonexistent regard for each other.

“The Lion in Winter,” performed at Custom Made Theatre in San Francisco, presents a set of characters all calculating in their own right — to the point of their intentions being effectively ambiguous to the audience. Dysfunctional to the extreme, the members of this royal family plot against each other and use one another as pawns, leaving the audience to watch as they vie for power.

Set during Christmas of 1183, “The Lion in Winter” is written by James Goldman and depicts the conflicts between King Henry II (Steven Westdahl) and his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Catherine Luedtke) — conflicts that are just as much political as they are personal.

Henry has kept Eleanor locked away in prison for the past 10 years, only letting her out for holidays, increasing the tension over this Christmas. Henry’s reign must come to an end, and Henry and Eleanor have very different ideas regarding which son they want to take over. They wage internal war against each other, while the sons in question involve themselves in the massive plotting. And, while the characters of this play are based off of real people from history, the events of this complicated yet compelling narrative are merely an imagining of what could have happened behind closed doors.

With a small and minimal stage set up, all of the focus is placed on the interactions between the cunning characters. While each character tries to convince the others that they are being sincere in their words, the audience is also left to determine just how honest any of them actually are. Each actor succeeds in portraying this ambiguity, but King Henry and Queen Eleanor  are the two who really stand out among the ensemble.

Henry appears in the opening scene, in which he is talking to Alais (Caitlin Evenson), his  mistress — and the future bride of one of his sons — about his plans to make his youngest son, John (Luke Brady), the next king. In this scene, Henry appears to be genuine, setting your impression of him as “the good guy,” so to speak, in relation to his evil and scheming wife. Yet, you come to see him caught up in his schemes, you start to rethink just how authentic he really is.

Eleanor, meanwhile, has the opposite effect. Before she even appears on stage, she is set up to be the selfish antagonist who will do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. Initially, she lives up to this expectation, but as you get deeper into the narrative, she slowly begins to elicit sympathy. She is still manipulative, but she turns out to be more emotionally driven than originally depicted.

The supporting cast, namely the three sons (Elliot Lieberman, Kalon Thibodeaux, Brady) somewhat pale in comparison to the captivating performances of Westdahl and Luedtke. They come off as easier to read than their parents, making them slightly less interesting. They do, however, have their memorable moments — the most interesting element for each of the kids is seeing how their parents’ calculativeness have reflected back onto them, as the three of them embrace this trait in attempt to fight back against Henry and Eleanor’s pawnlike treatment of them.

Witnessing the characters work against each other makes for a stimulating performance, as you try to figure out how everyone’s conflicting intentions could possible come to a resolution. And, in the end, nothing is resolved: The royal family’s situation is exactly as it was at the start of things, with Eleanor being locked away once again and the question of who will be the next king still unanswered. The lack of resolution, however, does not take away from a satisfying ending, as the inner workings of this family are so twisted that there is no clear right or wrong conclusion. Everything is left up in the air, in what turns out to be the most fitting ending to this tumultuous family drama.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].