Passions run deep in ‘The Lion in Winter’

Oh those Royal Families of the Middle Ages — they made history as dysfunctional monarchy soap operas unfolded in western Europe’s stately castles.

“The Lion in Winter” presents the lying, cheating, and scheming clan of King Henry II of England one Christmas in 1183 as if they were the Lyons of the pulpy TV serial “Empire.” Oh wait — reverse (The Lyons are based on this royal family’s turbulent relationships, as are numerous works).

In The Rep’s volcanic production, director Edward Stern makes sure Henry’s epic feud with his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquatine is a grand glorious boxing match while their three reprehensible bickering sons each make their unconvincing case to wear the crown.

So who will succeed dear old Dad, and what’s at stake for family members?

In this zestfully conceived 1966 drama by James Goldman, alliances are forged, broken and mended, as betrayals surface and bad deeds are rehashed. Goldman started with facts and embellished the truth to heighten conflicts. A Royal Christmas Court is fanciful fiction, setting the stage for wicked gamesmanship.

The first act is an impressive championship bout between the two titans. Carol Schultz as the brilliant and cagey Eleanor and aptly named Jeffrey King as the emotional, hot-tempered Henry II show their passions run deep.

Marriage, being land deals and political moves back then, was initially a momentous pairing between strong-willed Eleanor, the wealthiest woman in the world at that time, and the powerful, calculating Henry, They were wed from 1152 to 1189, but Henry’s philandering mucked things up. Her first husband was King Louis VII, but it was annulled after 15 years.

Eleanor bore Henry eight children. Three of the five sons would go on to be kings, but this play is about deciding which surviving one should take over the family business first.

The king has had his wife imprisoned for the past 10 years, but allows her release on special occasions. A magnanimous move considered she led a revolt against him, convincing their sons he needed to be overthrown.

The arguments escalate as no one backs down. Inexplicably, petulant spoiled brat John (Kurt Hellerich) is dad’s favorite, after eldest son Henry died. He’s weak and an obvious bad choice.

Mom prefers the lionhearted Richard (Grayson DeJesus), whose bravery in battle contrasts his tempestuous nature at home. He’s the strongest but is toughest the winning attribute? Energetic Geoffrey (Wilson Bridges), smart but ignored, appears to be the odd man out, which might be good because he is amoral and devious.

The boys are impatient about the decision. To add more depth to the stakes, Philip Capet, King of France (Ryan Ward), is on hand, as is his sister, the surprisingly ruthless Alais (Angela Janas), who has been betrothed to Richard since age 8 but has become Henry’s devoted mistress. Philip Augustus is the son of Eleanor’s ex and his third wife Adelaide while his half-sister Alais’ mother was Constance.

True colors emerge, and the maneuvering can be a tad exhausting, but is always fascinating.

In the much shorter second act, the disgruntled sons become even more irritated, and are placed in the dungeon. Will Henry keep them there? What wiles does Eleanor have up her sleeve? Are the boys pawns or actually loved by their parents? Merry Christmas, everyone!

Stern keeps the verbal barbs flowing and the action smooth. The acting is first-rate, conveying larger-than-life characters in a relatable, modern way.

Eleanor is a plum part for any actress. Rosemary Harris won a Tony in 1966 and Katharine Hepburn an Oscar for the 1968 film, originating the roles on stage and screen. However, I wish Schultz wouldn’t have sounded so much like Hepburn, that mid-Atlantic accent — because it makes her seem like she mimicked the legend when she did not have to, for she’s strong enough on her own.

Who knew strategizing centuries ago would be so bracing?

“The Lion in Winter”

  • When: Now through Jan. 31
  • Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  • Where: 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, Mo.
  • Tickets: 314-968-4925; www.repstl.org