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The Lion in Winter/The Lion in Winter

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The Lion in Winter, TimeLine Theatre Company, and The Lion in Winter, Rising Moon Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Perhaps the current glut of productions of James Goldman's play about Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, represents nostalgia for the days when smart people were involved in government. Whatever the reason, two companies have confronted the text's brittle wit and come up victorious. Neither show is perfect, but both are well worth seeing.

TimeLine's version, beautifully staged by Nick Bowling, rests on David Parkes's portrayal of Henry: he resists all temptation to swagger and presents a touching portrait of a man poised between youth and age and struggling to reconcile them. The in-the-round production is gorgeous down to the preshow music and has but one weakness--the women. In the 1968 film, Katharine Hepburn could get away with being arch for two hours, but Ann Wakefield can't, and Corryn Cummins is so vapidly sweet as Henry's mistress that we can't imagine why he prefers her to his wife. But the supporting men are excellent, notably Jeff Schmitt, who rescues Prince John from the playwright's (and history's) contempt, presenting him as someone out of his depth but doing his best.

Rising Moon director Robert Scogin treats the play as an actors' feast, so inevitably some scenery gets chewed. Craig Spidle roars a bit too much as Henry, and his performance emphasizes the text's humor rather than its humanity, but he makes a fine counterpoint to Kate Young's superb Eleanor: she never succumbs to the temptation to mock the queen or her efforts to maintain dignity while securing love. They're well supported by the sons, especially John Byrnes as Geoffrey, radiating danger instead of smarminess.

The most interesting comparison is between the productions' two excellent Richards. At Rising Moon, Jonathan Nichols is inscrutable until a single, explosive, totally unexpected moment of anguish, while Stephen Rader at TimeLine is all exposed nerve endings, bristling at imaginary slights and bleeding at a touch. So this month there's an embarrassment of riches in historical drama--worse things have happened.

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