THE LION IN WINTER, Pyewacket, at Wheadon United Methodist Church. James Goldman's play--which spawned the 1968 film that Sylvester Stallone recently called his all-time favorite--is essentially "Shakespeare for Dummies." It has all the plotting for political power, the fierce family squabbles, and the lusty, romantic intrigue but lacks the poetry, wit, and personality. Set in the 12th century, this dated drama grafts an Albee-esque sensibility onto the fight for succession among the three sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Though the play alludes to King Lear directly on one occasion, Goldman's sporadic attempts at Shakespearean language ("I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice") are usually anemic. And the more contemporary-sounding dialogue, though often well turned, quickly grows tedious when delivered by Goldman's generally unsympathetic characters: blustery Richard, scheming Geoffrey, hapless John, their feuding parents, and Henry's dippy mistress.
With its numerous opportunities for scenery chewing, this is more a play for actors than for audiences--and Kate Harris, displaying every color in the emotional spectrum as Eleanor, seems to have the most fun of anybody in this Pyewacket production. But there's little use made of the odd setting, a bright Evanston church--indeed, the play's climactic, dark dungeon scene is peculiarly performed under glaring white lights. Given the setting and the hoary nature of this community-theater staple, it's a credit to Linda LeVeque's intense, tireless cast that they're able to generate even a modicum of interest.