The beginning of the story has the symmetry and simplicity of folk and fairy tale: Lear, an aging king, conducts a ceremony to divide up his kingdom between his three daughters. He tells them that the size of their legacies will depend on the fervor with which they express their love for him. Two of the daughters respond with fawning speeches. The third and youngest, Cordelia -- in what can be interpreted as either admirable honesty or bull-headed stubbornness -- says that she loves him to the precise extent that she should, neither more nor less. Flying into a rage, Lear has her banished -- and this is where the story becomes complex, rich and universal. The result of Lear's fury is violence and pain, the soul-deep testing of everyone around him and, ultimately, the dissolution of both his own mind and his kingdom. There are scholars who see glimmers of redemption in the play, and you can certainly make a case for that; there are others who describe it as a study in pure despair.
In a device that adds depth to the plot, Lear's fortunes are paralleled by those of the Earl of Gloucester, whose bastard son, Edmund, is scheming to inherit his estate by discrediting his legitimate brother, Edgar. Gloucester's blind credulity in the face of Edmund's plotting matches Lear's blind arrogance, and leads as surely to destruction.
Any production of King Lear rises and falls on the performance of its lead actor, and Philip Pleasants is an interesting Lear. At the beginning, this king is more a bad-tempered, platitude-spouting baby than a great monarch, yelling incessantly, petulantly kicking the map of the kingdom laid out on the floor before him. You can see why his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, doubt his sanity, and their refusal to allow him to keep a drunken retinue of a hundred knights at their respective castles seems perfectly reasonable. It's a little harder to understand the devotion this Lear inspires in Gloucester and the faithful Earl of Kent. Pleasants's anger is pitched so high at the start that he has almost nowhere to go as the wrongs against him multiply, and because he's been declaiming so much, the great blasts of rhetoric with which Lear answers the thunderclaps on the heath -- "Blow winds and crack your cheeks" -- don't have the impact they should.
But Pleasants comes into his own later in the play and gives full due to the beautiful moment in which the storm-battered Lear turns his thoughts for the first time to the deprivations suffered by the poor of his kingdom. And the scene in which Lear, now completely mad, gesticulating like a demented marionette and crowned in flowers, meets up with the blinded Gloucester on the heath is both touching and original. Equally touching is the tenderness that Pleasants's Lear shows to the Fool, and to Cordelia during their brief, sweet and doomed reunion. His warmth lends weight to the idea that there is something redemptive in this heart-scalding play after all.
The rest of the cast displays various levels of comfort and skill with Shakespeare. Rodney Hicks gives Edmund the requisite cheeky charm, but his speech is mushy and sometimes hard to understand. Markus Potter's Edgar becomes a much stronger figure as the play progresses, passing through the crucible of pretended madness and emerging as an authoritative figure. Mike Hartman, who plays Gloucester, is a terrific actor, but he never quite conveys the full horror and revelation of the character's long journey into darkness; his talents are more suited to contemporary, naturalistic plays than to Shakespeare. I like Sharon Washington's alternately vulnerable and vicious Goneril, though Kathleen McCall's Regan is too stagily evil from the beginning. There's not much warmth to Stephanie Cozart's Cordelia, but perhaps that's intentional. Sam Gregory makes a sometimes soulful, sometimes waspish Fool, who's physically so fragile that he dies of exhaustion and exposure during the storm. (This is Thompson's interpretation; the Fool's disappearance partway through the play is never explained in the text.)
Some of the major triumphs occur in smaller roles: John Hutton's hot-headed Kent; William Hahn's gentle, soul-shrinking little smile as the evil Oswald; Randy Moore's perfect and precise appearances as an old peasant and, later, the doctor who tends to the comatose Lear. Thompson's colorblind casting -- Hicks, Washington and Robert Jason Jackson, who gives us a powerfully deep-voiced Duke of Albany, are all African-American -- lends nuance and dimension.
This is not a revelatory Lear, but in paying close attention to the music and the meaning of the play, Thompson has created a very clean, creditable production.