In Shakespeare's tragedy, "King Lear," the Fool chides the king for growing old before his time. "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise," the Fool insists.
Director Michael Kahn's production at the Shakespeare Theatrat the Folger emphasizes the getting of wisdom. "King Lear" can be played as a relentlessly pessimistic tale, but as enacted by Fritz Weaver, Lear's eventual awakening is moving -- even a bit uplifting.
Lear's realization comes too late to alter the bloody circumstances he has set in motion by taking early retirement and dividing his kingdom between his two hypocritical older daughters. However, the eventual reunion between Mr. Weaver's Lear and his loyal, youngest daughter, Cordelia (Sabrina Le Beauf) -- disinherited in a vain and spiteful moment -- is a touching, timeless testament to the power of familial love.
The impact of Mr. Weaver's performance stems from the fact that he shows us not only the disintegration of the king, but also the making of the man. His rich interpretation is the primary reward in a production that, with one obvious exception, is a highly traditional reading of the text.
The exception is the Fool, portrayed by Philip Goodwin as a double amputee propelling himself around the stage on a board mounted on wheels. I'm not sure what is intended here -- #F perhaps the notion that no one is whole in this play. Lear has nobility, age and rank, but lacks self-knowledge. The melancholy Fool knows himself -- and also knows Lear -- but his body is as broken as his spirit.
The production boasts a number of other impressive performances, particularly that of Jack Ryland as honest, noble Kent and Daniel Southern as slimy Edmund, the duplicitous bastard son of Gloucester, whose history of misjudging his children echoes that of Lear.
The interweaving of the tales of Lear and Gloucester is one of the stunning achievements of the text. Unfortunately, Ted van Griethuysen is an ineffectual Gloucester; his lack of intensity makes him seem less than a minor league Lear.
Scenically, designer Thomas Lynch contains the action within a curved metal wall that makes it look as if the characters are trapped in a pit. It's not as inspired as the set for the Folger's 1984 production -- a steep staircase that was dangerously flooded with water during the storm scene.
But the current set is typical of the relatively safe approach Mr. Kahn has taken to the images as well as the words in
Shakespeare's play. This isn't merely a safe production, however, it's also a solid one, and Mr. Weaver makes it affecting as well.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees most Saturdays, Sundays at 2 p.m., May 22 and 29 at noon. Through July 7.
Where: The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, 201 E. Capitol St. SE., Washington.
Call: (202) 546-4000.