Dark, mighty and poetic, Shakespeare’s “King Lear” remains the definitive savage family drama — a monumental tale of a betrayed monarch’s descent into madness and grief. The mournful howl of the king can currently be heard in a new production by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, nestled on the campus of Drew U. Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte has staged the tragedy on a gloomy bluff. The decidedly bleak landscape and barefoot players, garbed in muted brown and black tunics, stalk the rocky terrain with spidery stealth.
Daniel Davis (TV’s “The Nanny”) is a virile Lear of enormous swagger and dash. Davis brings weight and clarity to the part, defining the despair in the storm-toss’d mad scene. His perf is both imposing and accessible.
In what is surely the Bard’s most chilling scene, the faithful Gloucester (Edmund Genest) is strapped to a table and blinded by Regan (Victoria Mack) and Cornwall (Matt Bradford Sullivan). He is subsequently led to the cliffs of Dover for a failed suicide leap by his banished son, Edgar (Kevin Isola). Genest offers a touching portrait of old Gloucester that is warm-hearted, gullible and noble. Isola balances feigned madness with harbored loyalty to both his king and his father.
Mack’s Regan and Kristie Dale Sanders’ Goneril, Lear’s well-coiffed daughters, are mean and ruthless siblings; maliciously well-focused, Sanders defines icy terror, and Mack projects mousy malevolence with a teasing sexual thrust. A lovely Erin Partin conveys the misguided allegiance of the strong-willed Cordelia.
As Edmund, the illegitimate half-brother of Edgar, Marcus Dean Fuller offers a tautly drawn portrait of a scheming and calculating neurotic. Seamus Mulcahy is the wise little Fool, but his wisdom fails to reveal the intrinsic whimsy, wit and compassion required.
There is earnest support from Ames Adamson as the sturdy Kent and Scott Whitehurst as a boldly fervent Albany. Both actors speak the Bard with great clarity and conviction. The courtly treachery is accented by Steven Rosen’s lighting design.
Although Monte’s uncluttered staging is not a production of grand pageantry, it is one of great pluck and purpose.