The Washington Post

John Lithgow, taking a big swing at ‘Lear’

John Lithgow and Clarke Peters in The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

NEW YORK — It’s not only the murdered Cordelia that John Lithgow bears onto the open-air stage of the Public Theater’s “King Lear.” All evening, this big, winning lug of an actor also has to carry an excessive amount of the poignant weight of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in a production that does too little to lighten his burden.

Lithgow’s emotional accessibility is an attribute employed to distinct advantage in director Daniel Sullivan’s visually appealing, three-hour mounting of the play, especially in its later phases, after Lear is stripped of dignity and sanity, and is left to writhe in the mire of his monumental folly. Among all the characters implicated in the play’s horrors, however, Lear too often comes across here as the only one capable of a response with the requisite intensity. The absence of a compelling depth of feeling is particularly apparent in two other pivotal performances, those of Annette Bening, as Lear’s soulless eldest daughter, Goneril, and Clarke Peters, portraying Gloucester, the blinded nobleman in “Lear’s” mirroring subplot, about another father catastrophically misjudging his children.

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

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
From clubfoot to climbing: Double amputee lives life of adventure
Learn to make traditional soup dumplings
In defense of dads
Play Videos
How to make head cheese
Perks of private flying
The rise and fall of baseball cards
Play Videos
Husband finds love, loss in baseball
New hurdles for a Maryland tradition
How to survive a shark attack
Play Videos
Portland's most important meal of the day
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to save and spend money at college
Next Story
Elahe Izadi · August 5, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.