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Theater

'The Lion in Winter' comes with a strong resume

| Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Alan Stanford as Henry II and Cary Anne Spear as Eleanor of Aquitaine in Pict Theatre’s “The Lion in Winter”
Courtesy of Pict Theatre
Alan Stanford as Henry II and Cary Anne Spear as Eleanor of Aquitaine in Pict Theatre’s “The Lion in Winter”
Director John Shepard
Courtesy of Pict Theatre
Director John Shepard

'Tis the season for dysfunctional family reunions.

One of the most scalding, acerbic and calculating of those gatherings is fictionalized in James Goldman's “The Lion in Winter.” The play is the latest offering from Pict Classical Theatre, running Dec. 1 to 17 at Union Project in Highland Park.

“The Lion in Winter” is based on true events in 1183 within the royal family of King Henry II, involving a power struggle with his wife and queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons fighting for succession to the throne.

They all come together for a very “special” Christmas, filled with backstabbing, intrigue and vicious wit.

But, as Eleanor puts it: “What family doesn't have its ups and downs?”

Within Pict's “Classics in the Raw” season, the challenges for director John Shepard include presenting the play in Union Project's alley stage.

The stage runs down the middle of the audience, who face the action from both sides. The space, he says, dictates a simple set.

“Basically, our set is really one long giant Medieval-looking table,” Shepard says with a laugh. “And we've got this table cluttered with stuff, and a sort of toppled large chandelier in the corner. So we're having to delineate our space in terms of location for the scenes within those boundaries. And it's been a challenge, but it's also quite rewarding to keep it simple and still keep it rather period looking.”

Alan Stanford, Pict artistic director, performs the role of Henry.

“He is terrific in the role,” Shepard says. “It will be great for his audience to see him act. He's been mostly directing and running the company. And this is a major role with a great cast. We have a really exquisite cast.”

Cary Anne Spear faces off Stanford as Eleanor.

“She is absolutely Alan's match and a brilliant actress,” Shepard says. “She's fantastic. She brings a wonderful playfulness to the role. And they work very well together.”

“The Lion in Winter” is a work that comes to us with a strong resume.

When the play premiered on Broadway in 1966, Robert Preston played the lead, with Rosemary Harris at his side. The production won two Tony Awards.

Goldman wrote the screenplay for the 1968 movie starring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn. The film earned three Oscars from its seven nominations. Goldman won for best writing.

“The movie is very true to the play,” Shepard says. “The play itself is very well-written. It's very dynamic.”

The director seems to be inspired by both mediums.

“I'm taking a sort of filmic approach to it,” he says. “We dissolve from one scene to the next without any sort of set changes, per se. And I kind of like that. I get the sense that the characters are always present even when they're not onstage. … Everyone is eavesdropping on everyone else. So, the sense that it's kind of fluid is very important to me.”

Local theatergoers will be familiar with Shepard's work as an actor. He has performed regularly for most local theater companies, including Quantum, Pittsburgh Public, City and Pict. He has directed productions across the country and teaches acting and directing at Point Park University.

He is enjoying his direction of “The Lion in Winter,” despite the challenge of space restrictions, which has paid back in enhanced creativity.

“I am finding now that I'd rather direct this play in this situation, under these circumstances, than if I had everything at my disposal — with a proscenium stage and a full set,” Shepard says.

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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