From the ticking of the metronome that greets the audience's entrance into the venue, it's clear that director Barry Edelstein's work will be the evening's most significant contribution. Defining the majority of his characters as part of a relaxed modern aristocracy, and working with Narelle Sissons's attractive and understated costumes, Jane Cox's subtly subversive lighting, and Mattie Ullrich's costumes, Edelstein has fashioned an elegant, low-key backdrop for Shakespeare's story of jealousy, honor, and hope.
The director's work forms a solid base for the evening as we're introduced to the characters and situations. Leontes, the King of Sicilia, has a strong relationship with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, until he becomes convinced that his wife Hermione is bearing Polixenes's unborn child. Acting upon a nearly unquenchable rage, Leontes severs all ties with his former friend and orders his wife, son, and newborn daughter to be put to death. Edelstein handles all this with great expediency, moving the events along quickly and cleanly.
After the intermission (which represents 16 years of time in the story), it's time for spring to come with all of the rebirth that implies. The second half of the show is appropriately different in tone, providing a marked contrast to the death and sorrow of the first half. As the world recovers from the colder months, the play's characters atone for their wrongs, reveal long held secrets, and allow romance and forgiveness to bloom with the season's flowers.
Edelstein has done nearly everything right in directing this production, except that he has not found a group of actors capable of bringing his ideas and Shakespeare's words to life. Too many of the performers are well-spoken at the expense of being thoroughly convincing, and this is not a good trade-off.
David Strathairn, as Leontes, is the most obvious example. Displaying overwrought mannerisms that make his happier moments unmemorable and his tragic moments unbearable, Strathairn's performance is visibly calculated and controlled, seldom in the moment, and almost never emotionally affecting. Likewise, Barbara Garrick's Hermione alternates between stiff and unmoving; while this is generally unfortunate, it does make her performance as a statue later in the show seem almost a tour de force. Mary Lou Rosato's Paulina, who protests her friend Hermione's innocence and later attempts to right her wrongs, only breaks through a barricade of emotional detachment late in the evening, witily informing her lines in the critical last scene with a delicious irony.
Generally better are Larry Paulsen as Leontes's devoted servant Camillo, Michel Gill's effectively understated Polixenes, and the two comic shepherds (Tom Bloom and David Costabile) who play a vital role in the plot. Two of the younger performers come off the best: Gene Farber and Elizabeth Reaser make an attractive and winning young couple.
The show's second half is stronger -- perhaps not coincidentally because it focuses on Farber and Reaser -- but it can't balance the show after the almost painful unease and discomfort of the cast in the play's earlier scenes. Edelstein's work suggests sufficient heat, but given that some of the actors have yet to warm up when the lights go down for the last time, this Winter's Tale may leave you cold.