Alvin Epstein is heartbreaking in the title role of this must-see production of Shakespeare's tragedy.
Although this advice, which is offered after the title character has learned it from bitterest experience, sounds cut-and-dried, the play is anything but. In fact, King Lear is arguably the Bard's most passionate play. Tempers flare immediately upon Lear's decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, only two of whom pay him the kind of (feigned) respect he thinks he deserves. Adding to the exploding tempers is the literal tempest through which the eventually mad King storms after being turned out by his two no-longer-honey-tongued offspring.
The heightened emotions on display throughout are in the service of a play that compulsively ponders wisdom and foolishness. (One of the wisest characters is, of course, the Fool, here wearing a cap with "Fool" embroidered on it.) Reversing the dictum that it's a wise child who knows his own father, King Lear focuses on the unwise father who doesn't know his own child. To drive the point home, Shakespeare introduces not one easily gulled parent but two into his sprawling narrative: Lear and Gloucester, the second of whom must be actually blinded before he understands that true sight is insight.
What Shakespeare wants to get across is as direct as a bullet, but he couches it in a play that puts almost impossibly heavy demands on its director and actors. Here, director Patrick Swanson meets those demands by taking the text seriously. Better still, he also takes his time with it, letting the lines dictate a stately tempo at the beginning when Lear addresses the court. As the five acts (played with one intermission) overtake each other, Swanson's carefully measured tempo picks up speed in the way that an agitated heart starts racing.
Moreover, Swanson is so committed to Shakespeare's vivid words that he has instructed set designer David R. Gammons to keep the physical look of the production simple. The play unfolds in the round under a collection of chandeliers and other light fixtures that shift ominously when thunder and lightning flash and crash, while the playing area is covered by what looks like a very woodsy, springy potpourri. If there's an excessive ingredient here, it's Bill Barclay's sound and music design, which is so loud during the storm that the actors often look as if they're only mouthing the words.
As to those actors, Swanson has surrounded the gray-haired and fragile-limbed Epstein with an ensemble ranging from the superlative (Benjamin Evett's lusty Edmund, Allyn Burrows' simpatico Kent, Ken Cheeseman's gamboling Fool, and Colin Lane's forceful if perhaps too young Gloucester) to the more than adequate (Sarah Newhouse, Jennie Israel, and Paula Langton as daughters Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan).
Since Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is often said to echo Lear, it's a longtime theatergoer's pleasure that Epstein, who played the ironically named Lucky in the first American mounting of Beckett's seminal work, is finally tackling Lear. Somewhere close in age to the four-score-and-then-some years that Lear admits to being, Epstein knows that just as Lear must be stripped of his faulty affectations before he finds redemption, anyone acting the part must strip not only to a loincloth for symbolic purposes but must also strip technique to its essence. Epstein's initial scene, in which he sizes up his family and flaunts his fatal flaw (banishing his youngest daughter Cordelia for not flattering him), and his final scene, in which his heart finally breaks, are up there with the best Lears of the past many decades. Indeed, audience members' hearts can almost be heard breaking along with Lear's.