DALLAS -- No one wins at parenting in one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, King Lear. In Dallas Theater Center's production, having the role of taking care of a parent doesn't pay off, either.
That's true of the play in general, but in Kevin Moriarty's modern-dress staging, a co-production with Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. (where it played in the fall), that idea hits home.
The titular, aged King of Britain (played by Brian McEleney) is relinquishing his throne, dividing his estate among his three daughters, Goneril (Christie Vela), Regan (Angela Brazil) and Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth). While the first two lavish praises on him so they can claim what's theirs, the youngest, loving Cordelia, refuses to pander with false sincerity, and is banished. Lear famously goes mad, wandering about in the storm until all is right with his heirs. (Yeah, that's not going to happen in Shakespeare tragedy.)
What's simultaneously off-putting and fascinating about all this is the way McEleney attacks the role. Lear is usually seen as headstrong and commanding in the beginning, which leads to a marked change as he goes off the farm. McEleney, a Trinity company member (the cast is about evenly split between the resident companies of both theaters), begins with a slight shake of the head and body as he speaks, and his voice is always pitched at a straining, low-volume yell (although you won't realize that until you get halfway through, as its timbre is constant). Think Grandpa Simpson, just as cranky but more lyrical.
This portrayal, more than any other this critic has seen, makes you consider the play's insight into what we now call Alzheimer's disease. While some interpretations might see the character's descent into madness triggered by heartbreak, a la Lucia di Lammermoor (in this case Lear's separation from his daughters and kingdom), McEleney makes the case that he has been on the brink of dementia for years. It was just a matter of time.
Which makes his treatment by Goneril (Vela gives the best performance of the daughters, briny and authoritative, her hair slicked back in warrior-princess mode) and Regan all the more sad. Were they exhausted by caring for him and relieved to let him go, or are they just as cold-hearted as you've always known them to be?
The biggest issue with McEleney's voice is that it is lost in the famous storm scene and the speech's impact diminished. Otherwise, that scene is visually and aurally fantastic with Michael McGarty's scenic design, which brings an element of artifice into the mix; Seth Reiser's poetic lighting; and the sound and original music by Broken Chord. Another scene with less impact than it should have was the final one, with Lear and Cordelia.
Moriarty plays with the dynamics of another parent-child relationship by changing the gender of the Earl of Gloucester (played by a commanding Phyllis Kay), which adds a layer of motherly loyalty to her relationship with her bastard son, Edmund (Lee Trull, with a subtle but effective villainy), and her heir, Edgar (Steven Michael Walters, skillful with language and empathy).
A terrific Stephen Berenson adds much-needed humor as the Fool who, in modern comedy terms, would end up on the D-list stand-up circuit. Other strong performances include Hassan El-Amin as the Earl of Kent and Brandon Potter as the Duke of Burgundy.
Moriarty relies less on the gimmickry he has shown in previous Shakespeare productions at DTC (this is the final of a four-play Shakespeare cycle there). Although modern dress (costumes by William Lane) means guns, which cheapens the scenes with fighting sticks and knives (fight choreography by Craig Handel). Why do all that when you can simply aim and fire?
"O, matter and impertinency," indeed.