Thunder River Theatre Company celebrates 20th season with an audience favorite

Jessica Cabe
Thunder River Theatre Company is one of many arts organizations in Carbondale. In this file photo, Henry II (Lon Winston) uses his mistress Alais (Jaime Sklavos) as a pawn in his schemes for power in "The Lion in Winter," the second play of Thunder River Theatre Company's 20th anniversary season.
Mike Monroney / Post Independent file |

If you Go...

Who: Thunder River Theatre Company

What: “The Lion in Winter”

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11-13, 18-20 and 2 p.m. Dec. 14 and 21

Where: Thunder River Theatre

How Much: $25 for adults, $14 for students and $17 for 20- and 30-somethings

Lon Winston, executive artistic director of Thunder River Theatre Company and the actor who plays Henry II in “The Lion in Winter,” had a lot of reasons for choosing this play for the company’s 20th anniversary.

For one thing, its unique take on love fits in with the other productions of the season: “The Gin Game,” “Hamlet” and “Red Herring.”

For another, Henry II is a role most actors would jump at the chance to play.

“It’s not a dream role, but it’s a very interesting role, and in our 20th anniversary season, in putting it all together, I wanted to do one role,” Winston said.

And finally, it’s an intense, witty and dramatic representation of a family fighting at Christmas. Sure, most families probably are not fighting over who will inherit the throne of 12th century England, but a battle of wits is as much a Christmas staple as a lit up tree.

“I think the wonderful thing about this play is, no matter how brilliant your family is — and this is a brilliant family from history; they really accomplished so much — no matter how brilliant your family is, there are some shadows in the closet,” said Trary Maddalone, who plays Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. “That’s what this play is about.”

In “The Lion in Winter,” an aging Henry II is making arrangements for his death. One of the biggest decisions he must make is which of his three sons — Richard (David Pulliam), Geoffrey (Adam Solomon) and John (Emery Major) — will become king. Henry favors John, a spoiled and inexperienced boy, while Eleanor fights for Richard, a bold military man, to take the throne.

“It’s a contest of wills,” said director Mike Monroney. “There are strategies, there’s cunning, there are manipulations. Everyone can identify with that.”

In order to augment the power struggle theme, the play will be performed in the round. Chairs encircle the stage, turning it into an arena.

“A play should dictate the use of space; it’s not just arbitrary,” Winston said. “And there are references to this. ‘Here we are in the arena.’ It seemed like a natural way of moving into the use of the theater.”

Monroney said he’s worked in the round before, but this is his first time directing in this setup.

“We wanted to make it look like we’re watching this battle or this contest going on in front of us,” Monroney said. “It offers specific challenges. You can’t use walls. You have to have a set that’s functional and flexible. So that’s been a good challenge and a really fun challenge.”

Monroney said another challenge that comes with this production is the size of the personalities of the characters.

“We’re talking about people who were among the foremost intellectuals, the foremost fighters, the foremost thinkers of their age,” Monroney said. “They’re remarkable people, and the fact that they’re all on the stage at the same time makes for an exciting contest. Bringing that level up so that it suits the conflict and the story is a fun challenge, a good challenge for everybody involved.”

The cast is a healthy mix of company members and brand new actors, and it includes one particularly poignant homecoming.

“My husband and I were the first actors [at Thunder River]; it was the inaugural production: ‘Oleanna,’” said Maddalone. “Lon Winston directed, and my husband and I were the two actors in the show. So it’s really exciting to be back here 20 years later.”

This is the first time Adam Solomon, Emery Major and Jaime Sklavos as Alais are appearing on the Thunder River Theatre stage. Major said it’s been a great learning experience.

“This is my first time acting with not just teens,” he said. “I do the Theatre Aspen Youth Conservatories all the time, but now I’m doing stuff with adults on a professional schedule, and it’s really exciting. It’s fast-paced, and I’m having a lot of fun and learning a lot.”

“The Lion in Winter” is almost 50 years old now, and it has been adapted into a movie (1968) and two-night miniseries (2003). Monroney said the play’s enduring popularity is due in large part to its timeless themes: the meaning of family and the struggle for power.

“Plays that might be popular and timely when they’re first written and produced often drop by the wayside as their subject or style becomes out of fashion or just no longer relevant,” Monroney said. “But it doesn’t really matter which century you set this play in because of this story, the themes, the subjects and the universality of all that. It’s still relevant.”

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