Rick Foucheux in WSC Avant Bard's "King Lear." (DJ Corey Photography)
Theater critic

The cracking kingdom is not a particularly big deal in the “King Lear” presided over by the formidable Rick Foucheux for WSC Avant Bard. In this intimate staging, Shakespeare’s grand tragedy of late-life madness is most effectively a family, acted in close quarters by a questing Foucheux and a cast that looks the monarch in the eye and makes him royally furious or breaks his confidence like it’s cheap glass.

Foucheux is one of the city’s most accomplished performers; the Helen Hayes Award he picked up earlier this month for his recent Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was the fifth such win in a career he says is winding down. This “Lear” is a bit of a valedictory, and it’s a coup for the largely non-Equity WSC Avant Bard — which has its own noble history tackling great and thorny plays — to have the steely-voiced, restless Foucheux at the center of this storm.

You’d say Foucheux is every inch a king, if it ever seemed this ruler had a realm. The too-earthy show’s design of colored sand below and tattered fabric above creates a smudged, static look that glumly announces ruin and sticks with it. Director W. Thompson Prewitt’s actors spend distracting amounts of time on the gritty floor inside the egg-shaped circle confining the action (seating is in the round, just a couple rows deep). Visually and sometimes even emotionally, this is an unsatisfyingly grounded “Lear.”

It’s nearly rescued by the impressive brainpower of Prewitt’s cast, which features more directors and dramaturges in its ensemble than any show you’re likely to see this year. Some of Foucheux’s most pointed exchanges come opposite Christopher Henley, a WSC Avant Bard co-founder and its longest-tenured artistic director, here playing Lear’s Fool with affecting brokenness. After Lear’s opening folly of giving his kingdom to his two falsely flattering daughters Regan and Goneril while cutting out the honest Cordelia, Henley lobs the Fool’s darts ever so gently at Lear. Henley’s Fool is too sad to be angry, yet each twisted punchline pricks the king awake, miserably, as Henley and Foucheux become partners in heartbreak.

Charlene V. Smith likewise builds a compelling rapport as her Regan talks familiarly with her father. Smith, artistic director of the feminist-leaning classics troupe Brave Spirits Theatre, is refreshingly less of a villain than an actual daughter, at least in the early passages, though stock sexualized villainy eventually overwhelms her performance once Regan and her equally power-hungry sister Goneril (Alyssa Sanders) turn violent.

More sustained is the sound, gender-reversed Gloucester played by the veteran actor and dramaturge Cam Magee. The steady, rational Magee supplies a maternal streak that’s both warm and pitiably blind as her Gloucester, like Lear, wrangles with children who are treacherous (Dylan Morrison Myers’s Edmund) and loyal (Sara Barker as Edgar, energetically playing a mad beggar with Lear in the storm).

Again, though, the design rankles as costumes make instant, obvious announcements — bloody scarlets cut into sinister silhouettes for Regan and her husband (Frank Britton), sleek rock-star black for the scheming Edmund, innocent white for Kathryn Zoerb’s earnest Cordelia. The play’s late stages go slowly as the rote nasty characters hack away inside the void left by the addled Lear. You’re reminded of how much time the title figure spends offstage.

When he reappears, Foucheux flourishes. The impetuous wrath of the early confrontations is fine, but that’s not as persuasively explained as Lear’s rising panic when he sees order and obedience crumbling in front of him. The woeful poetry after the storm is incredibly lucid, shot full of loss and knowledge that Foucheux plays with glorious, fully felt simplicity. You could watch this actor in this key for a very long time.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by W. Thomson Prewitt. Scenic design, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; costumes, Elizabeth S. Ennis; lights, John D. Alexander; sound design and composer, Justin Schmitz. With Vince Eisenson, Christian R. Gibbs, Louis E. Davis, Tiffany Byrd and Greg Watkins. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Through June 28 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Tickets $30-$35. Call 703-418-4808 or visit wscavantbard.org.