"I always assumed The Lion in Winter was one of those dusty old histrionic plays," says actress Sheri Lee Miller, describing James Goldman's celebrated 1964 comedy-drama. "Then I read it, and I thought, 'Oh, my God! This is so fresh and fun! There's nothing dated about it.' That sounds like a ridiculous thing to say about a play set in 1183, but the style in which it's written is not dated or dusty or histrionic at all. It's brilliant."
The play—which follows an eventful 24-hour-period in the court of King Henry II of England—opens this weekend in a joint, six-weekend production between Spreckels Performing Arts Center and Main Stage West. Packed with sharp writing and meaty roles, the production, directed by Keith Baker, features Miller as Eleanor of Aquitaine, the real-life wife and political sparring partner of Henry (played by Barry Martin).
"Eleanor is a badass," remarks Miller. "She's very passionate. She loves deeply and fiercely, and she can't stand being pitied." In the play, as in real life, Eleanor has been imprisoned by Henry, who lets her out only once or twice a year.
Set during Christmas Court, the action of the story revolves largely around the question of who will follow Henry to the throne. Vying for the position are Henry and Eleanor's three sons—Richard, aka "the Lionheart" (James Gagarin), Geoffrey (Grant Tambellini) and John (Lukas Thompson). Complicating matters is the manipulative presence of Alais (Ivy Miller), betrothed to Richard, but having a big, steamy affair with Henry.
And in the midst of all this family drama, Eleanor arrives home for the holidays, with just 24 hours to accomplish a year's worth of plotting and planning.
"Eleanor," says Miller, "loves nothing more than she loves Henry. She's been imprisoned by him for 10 years, so when she's let out, it's like everything she's been holding in for the whole year comes out—all the love, all the anger, the resentment, the desire for revenge and the optimistic hope that Henry will somehow take her back, will bring her home at last."
Though Eleanor has some of the juiciest lines ever written for an actress, Miller believes the show's best line belongs to Henry. At the end of the play, weary and exhausted, he says, "I could have conquered all of Europe, except that I had women in my life."
"Now that," says Miller, "is a great line."
'The Lion in Winter' runs July 7–22 at the Spreckels Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. The show then runs Aug. 2–18 at Main Stage West, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Showtimes vary. Tickets $20–$25.