The first time I saw The Lion in Winter, it was the film version and it starred two larger-than-life movie stars--Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn. At the time, the story seemed irritatingly antihistorical--ascribing, as it did, contemporary attitudes to heroes of an entirely different culture and time. I dismissed it as another piece of clever but trivial writing. I was too harsh.

Part of the problem lay in filming an emphatically theatrical piece with giants like O'Toole and Hepburn. The play needs a more human scale--a smaller space and actors who look like ordinary mortals--because playwright James Goldman's metaphors work best under those conditions. That's why the South Suburban Theatre Company's Lion was such a pleasant surprise. South Suburban grasps the intimate family dynamics and the parody of politics (old and new) that Goldman was after.

In Lion, Henry II, the king of England, has three grown sons, a mistress and an aging queen with the wit and ruthlessness of Machiavelli's Prince. Eleanor of Aquitaine was once queen of France, and when Henry acquired her, he also acquired a huge piece of French real estate that she continued to control. Now past her prime, her looking glass her worst enemy, she spars with her husband with all the daring of a young knight and the wile of an old woman. Hate is as active as love in their weird power struggle, but the king and queen need each other.

Eleanor wants the couple's eldest child, Richard, to inherit the throne. But Henry wants the youngest, John, to succeed him. Neither parent cares much for the middle child, Geoffrey, and he constantly castigates them for it. Familial bickering and back-stabbing never have been more vicious and politically astute --or pointless. And so something true and terrible penetrates the melodrama: That the human evolution that is history turns on such trivia as the vagaries of sexual desire, personal ambition, revenge and yes, even parental preference.

Eleanor is the most conscious, fragile and complex of all the characters. Goldman gets to the heart of basic human nature when he has her suggest to the assembled company, in the cadences of New Testament oratory, that "It's 1183 and we're all barbarians. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war. Not history's forces nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it nor causes nor religions nor ideas nor kinds of government nor any other thing. We are the killers; we breed war."

Rick Scheideman is a seductive and cunning Henry. He fills up the space around him with the disappointments of middle age, yet projects the energy of a virile old warrior who still thrives on conflict. It's an intelligent reading of the character, layered and sometimes graced by sober moments of revelation.

Toni Brady's Eleanor is crafty, bright, and as warm as steel girders. She lets little bits of truth rise to the surface and tremble there before her character spews more venom. I thought I heard a shade of the great Hepburn hiding behind her quavering voice, but I never minded. Trina Magness's best moments as the delicate Alais, Henry's mistress, emerge when she drops the fragile exterior and exposes the beast within. At other times, however, Magness seems ill at ease with Alais's tortured innocence.

Stephen Remund gives us a testy, moody Alan Rickman of a Richard Lionheart. It's a grim vision of the character, perhaps a bit dry in places, but noble and believably obsessed. Josh Stacey as the annoying youngster John gives an ambitious picture of decadent youth. Guy Williams as the slimeball brains of the family, Geoffrey, is perfect--a sneering, angry, rejected little boy grown into a conniving, self-obsessed young man. Gene Gilette as the young French king, Philip, is all calculating menace.

Though the ending feels abrupt, Christopher Tabb's clean, crisp direction manages everywhere else to bring out the meaning behind the madness that is history--and family life. As Eleanor says after a particularly nasty confrontation between parents and sons and husband and wife, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

The Lion in Winter, through March 20 at the Littleton Community Center Annex, 1900 West Littleton Boulevard, 798-2493, ext. 134.


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