John Lithgow has a great gift for playing comedy high (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) and low (“3rd Rock from the Sun”). So who would think he’d give us such a piteous Lear? The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park staging of “King Lear,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, has its ups and downs, the big downers being a weird production concept and questionable casting. But Lithgow and those thesps who play the maddened king’s faithful supporters (chiefly his Fool and those loyalists Kent and Gloucester) form an emotional core that validates this sympathetic view of Lear as a foolish old man who commits one rash act and almost immediately regrets it.
This Lear seems vulnerable at the outset, and the production design has much to do with that. The coarse materials of John Lee Beatty’s set — a bare wood-planked stage, bounded by a high back wall covered in rough burlap and shot through with metallic rods — suggest the medieval period. Or, if that pre-curtain Druidic rigmarole of blessing the stage is meaningful, the earlier, even more primitive era of Celtic England.
This constricted setting, cut off from the Delacorte’s sweeping views of the park, drastically limits Lear’s kingdom, along with his majesty. In dispensing with all the trappings of royalty (no castle, no court, not even a throne to rest the king’s royal bones), the production robs Lear of all the authority of his station. More damaging, it undermines a major theme of the play — the chaos (and attendant wars and suffering) that ravages the land when the sovereign power of a mighty kingdom breaks down.
That breakdown commences in the first act, in which the villains have all the fun. Lear’s two serpent-toothed daughters, among the most memorable villains in the Shakespearean canon, are breathtaking in their evil when they conspire to strip their father of his dignity, his sanity, even his life. There’s no bite, though, to Annette Bening’s matronly Goneril and even less poison in Jessica Hecht’s oddly giddy Regan. Not that Jessica Collins’ pallid perf does much for their virtuous younger sister, Cordelia.
The third wicked child in the play, Edmund, the hateful bastard son of Gloucester, is undermined by a flirtatious perf by Eric Sheffer Stevens that jarringly exposes a thoroughly contemporary sensibility.
Thankfully, the show makes a major turnaround after intermission, when Lear and the faithful remnants of his court take the stage. Jeff Croiter (lighting), Acme Sound Partners (sound) and Tal Yarden (video) finally put that weird set to good use, creating powerful effects for the thunder, lightning and rain that lash those great storm scenes played out on the heath.
Here, Lithgow at last gets to play the Lear he’s been building up to — a proud monarch and remote father, maddened as much by grief as old age and humanized through suffering. No more the arrogant king who mistakes flattery for fealty, this all-too-human Lear can finally hear the voices of his miserable subjects like Poor Tom of Bedlam (Chukwudi Iwuji) crying out in pain. Stripped naked, he gives his own cloak to cover his wretched Fool (Steven Boyer, remembered for his brilliant turn in “Hand to God” and giving another excellent performance here).
Lithgow is not alone in his uncommonly tender treatment of his character. Jay O. Sanders is touching as honest Kent, who shows great compassion for the foolish king who banished his loyal adviser instead of following his wise advice. Clarke Peters is quietly moving as brave Gloucester, who valiantly tries to save the mad king — and is hideously blinded for his loyalty.
No doubt, a towering Old Testament Lear would have had us trembling in our boots from the force of his ferocious curses. (“Thou art a boil!” he rages at a cruel daughter, “a carbuncle!”) But in a world afflicted by “a great abatement of kindness,” where “milky gentleness” is regarded with deep contempt, any sign of human compassion is a comfort.