As a result, the “Lear” that had its official opening Tuesday night — the first “Lear” according to the Public Theater, to be presented in the park’s Delacorte Theater in more than four decades — successfully finishes only a portion of its harrowing journey, as the mechanics sometimes shift disconsolately into neutral. Only the potent relationships forged with the king by two of his loyalists — Jay O. Sanders’s satisfyingly jaunty Kent and Steven Boyer’s touchingly perceptive Fool — suggest anything like the bonds of a real family. By contrast, the dark hearts of Lear’s elder offspring, Goneril and Regan (Jessica Hecht), and the more valiant one of the youngest, the misprized Cordelia (Jessica Collins), remain on this occasion muscles in need of more definition.
Lithgow, then, has less to react against than some luckier Lears; the tempests triggered by his daughters have nothing on the maelstrom that the spiritually damaged king encounters on the heath, in a storm on a bare platform conjured impressively by set designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Jeff Croiter and video designer Tal Yarden. And yet the actor does not let this deter him; his reflexive fury at the indignities heaped on him by Goneril and Regan, and Regan’s husband, Cornwall (Glenn Fleshler), transforms in Lithgow’s countenance convincingly into bewilderment, confusion and despair.
His descent into the abyss almost complete, this Lear has a moving respite, in his brief reunion with Cordelia, before she’s executed under orders of Gloucester’s viciously double-crossing younger son, Edmund (Eric Sheffer Stevens). (Chukwudi Iwuji gives a livelier account of Edmund’s nobler brother, Edgar.) It’s at Lear’s lowest moment that Lithgow’s performance reaches its peak; you can’t help but feel for the regal breadth of the monarch’s loss as he cradles the only child who treasured him. A belated grasp of the cruel end to which he’s led his daughter is etched in Lithgow’s haunted gaze.
Although the rewards of Sullivan’s “Lear” are unevenly distributed, Lithgow’s stirring turn ensures the tragic center holds.
King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. About three hours. Through Aug. 17 at Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York. Tickets are free and distributed in the park and online. Visit www.publictheater.org.