Theatrical historical fiction can be a tricky thing to write, let alone present on stage, although Shakespeare certainly had no trouble in either department.
Other authors have tackled historical fiction with mixed results. One of the most successful is “The Lion in Winter,” written by James Goldman. It premiered on Broadway at the Ambassador Theater on March 3, 1966, starring Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Eleanor.
The play was adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1968 film of the same name, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, whose turn as Eleanor won the Academy Award for best actress.
The play has been produced numerous times, including Broadway and West End revivals.
Now, it’s Laguna Playhouse’s turn.
“The Lion in Winter,” which opens this weekend and runs through Nov. 24, stars TV and theater veterans Frances Fisher (“Titanic,” “Native Gardens,” “Barbeque”), as Eleanor, and Gregory Harrison (“Trapper John, M.D.,” Broadway’s “Chicago,” “Steel Pier”), as “King Henry II.”
The plot is simple, yet fascinating.
It’s Christmas 1183, and King Henry II is planning to announce his successor to the throne. The jockeying for the crown is complex. Henry has three sons and wants his boy, Prince John, to take over. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor, has other ideas. She believes their son, Prince Richard, should be king. As the family and various schemers gather for the holiday, each tries to make the indecisive king choose their option.
The play is comedic in tone yet dramatic in action as the tale of the Plantagenet family is played out like a more grounded “Game of Thrones.”
The Playhouse’s performance is directed by Sheldon Epps, who spent 20 successful years as artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse before leaving in 2017 to spend more time directing. Local audiences will recognize Epps as the director of “Blues in the Night” and “Beauty and the Beast: A Christmas Rose” at the Playhouse last season.
Epps said he and the cast did a lot of research on the time period and the characters before rehearsals started, and then they shared what they learned during the first week of rehearsals.
“The challenge is to not try to overload the play with too much historical thinking and analysis,” Epps said. “The playwright, James Goldman, readily admitted that the play is based on history and real characters, but the story he created is one of his own imagination. It’s our job to use the research where valuable and to let it go when it is not. The research is valuable, but it is only a tool to discovering the truth of the story as it exists in the play.”
Fisher starred in “Native Gardens” at Pasadena Playhouse earlier this year, but Epps has not had a chance to work with her until now, although he said he has long-admired her work. He is also excited to work with Harrison, who he has seen onstage many times.
Epps noted that the rest of the cast is exactly what he wanted, although it will still be tricky for him to guide the actors in achieving the right tonal balance in the play.
“The best way to approach it is to keep it honest and truthful, and not dive toward either end; both the comedy and the drama come from grounding the characters in truthful behavior,” he commented. “It’s never effective to either try to be funny or to be dramatic.”
Ultimately, Epps said he wants to the play to feel “immediate and relevant.”
“Oddly, for a play that is set so many centuries ago, I hope that our audiences will see themselves in these characters,” Epps added. “Despite the period setting, the play is really about contemporary values including family dynamics. It’s about power, and surprisingly, about love. Watching this royal family go through the complications of the former to achieve the latter should be entertaining, challenging, and finally — I hope — very moving for an audience. Our great cast is working hard to make that happen.”
For more information, visit LagunaPlayhouse.com or call (949) 497-ARTS (2787).