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If wit, sophistication, and a front-row seat to the exigencies of a long marriage delight you, see The Lion in Winter at the Adobe, directed by Nancy Sellin. Playwright James Goldman’s language is biting and the punchlines well timed, declaimed by fine actors who actually are married to each other.

The bout begins when King Henry II (Peter Kierst) releases his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Debi Kierst), from prison for the holidays. He’s kept her locked up for hatching multiple plots to overthrow him. Now she is visiting Chinon Castle to campaign for their son Richard the Lion-Hearted (Tim Riley) to inherit Henry’s throne. 

Henry wants their 16-year-old son John (Owen Danan Martin) to become king after his death. The status of the middle son Geoffrey (Josh Blanchard) remains in limbo, and he complains frequently about a lack of love from his parents. 

Henry’s young mistress Alais (Victoria Hughes) will either become the inheritor’s wife, or continue to sleep with Henry, or be left with no status at all. The 18-year-old King Philip II of France (Austin Embree) also drops by to demand either a wedding for his half-sister Alais or the return of her dowry, which includes a strategic territory, the Vexin. Each younger person is a political football in Eleanor and Henry’s game.

Sounds like Christmas Eve at Mom and Dad’s, doesn’t it? The stakes are higher but the emotions feel the same. The play’s modern language and recognizable family squabbling are its signatures. We laugh at the badinage both because it is funny and because it seems so familiar. Bicker, bicker, bicker, and then the mashed potatoes fly. 

In this case, it’s daggers that may fly. But the barbs the sons fear most come from the tongues of their parents. The Kiersts play Henry and Eleanor as a formerly passionate couple whose long marriage may have mellowed into mutual regard, but whose love of the battle keeps them sharp. It seems not to matter to either which son inherits the throne as long as they can keep fighting for different sides. We of course know who wins in the end, yet these two leading actors keep us fascinated with their intimate warring.

Of the younger actors, only Riley is a seasoned professional, having worked in Albuquerque and Santa Fe for a decade. His experience shows in his bearing and in how deftly he portrays the love/hate relationship that Richard and Eleanor maintain. 

Blanchard does well as Geoffrey, the cheerful opportunist, happy to oblige any plot as long as it includes him. Martin is funny as the anxious, teenaged John. Embree shows us Philip’s growth, from entitled monarch to practitioner of intrigue under Henry’s tutelage. Hughes as Alais changes as well, from a compliant and besotted young woman to a fierce protector of her future offspring. I would like to see all four of these recent college graduates on stage again and soon.

Costume Designer Rhonda Backinoff clothes Eleanor in a beautiful formal gown and a less-formal velvet dress later in the play. Royal red is Debi Kierst’s color. Production Designer Petifoger makes Chinon Castle look so cold, I wanted to donate my coat to the actors. And Nina Dorrance, prop designer, shows us how to wrap a Christmas present, A.D. 1183-style.

—Stephanie Hainsfurther publishes

All Photos by Ronda Lewis.