“My life when written will read better than it was ever lived,” says Henry II (Michael Canavan) in James Goldman’s 1966 play and indeed, with Henry II being the central character of “The Lion in Winter” as well as in Jean Anouilh’s 1959 “Becket”—both receiving regular productions on both sides of the channel as well as in America and both of which also became immensely popular movies, “Lion” having been filmed twice in 1968 and 2003—modern audiences know as much fiction as fact about Henry. But no matter, what little history that is known isn’t that interesting, but the intrigues and personalities that make up the speculative and dysfunctional family Christmas surrounding Henry and his court in “Lion” are roles for actors to really sink their teeth into, and the outstanding cast that Writers’ Theatre’s Michael Halberstam has assembled could well chew up the scenery if given the opportunity. How refreshing to see the cobwebs of British calm stripped away from this modern classic with a first-rate ensemble that goes through the motions of their family hatreds so passionately that the audience is treated to a riveting ringside brawl within the close confines of Writers Theatre. Henry (Michael Canavan) and his Queen Eleanor (Shannon Cochran) provide most of the melodrama, but no less impressive are the three sons who vie for position to become their father’s heir, Lea Coco, Christopher McLinden and as a delightfully insufferably spoiled Prince John, Robert Belushi. What is most remarkable about the spontaneity of these performances is the fact that, despite having seen this show and its film adaptations numerous times, you really do start to forget how it all turns out as you duck with delight as the daggers dart by. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Lion in Winter” runs at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847)242-6000, through August 17. $40.