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'King Lear' review: John Lithgow superb in latest Shakespeare in the Park production

From left, Chukwudi Iwuji and John Lithgow in

From left, Chukwudi Iwuji and John Lithgow in The Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park production of "King Lear," directed by Daniel Sullivan with scenic design by John Lee Beatty, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park from July 22 through Aug. 17. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

There may be a surplus of "King Lear" revivals this year but that's no reason to miss out on or take for granted the straightforward but superb Shakespeare in the Park production of the play with John Lithgow and Annette Bening. 

“King Lear” hasn't been done by the Public Theater in the park for more than 40 years (not since James Earl Jones played the title role). To be frank, it's easier to do one of Shakespeare's lighter romantic comedies in the park than any of the great tragedies. 

Daniel Sullivan, who has directed a Shakespeare play at the Delacorte virtually every year since 2007, is a playwright’s director, emphasizing the text and psychological motivation over conceptual gimmicks and visual displays. His “Lear” looks pretty simple, with just a wooden platform and a wall that suggests surrounding woodland. The costumes convey the play’s original setting of a pre-Christian, feudal England.

While that may sound unexciting, especially for those who’ve seen plenty of other productions of the play, it proves to be exceptionally acted, engrossing and well-integrated among the ensemble. 

There is an original touch in the disarming, thunder-like sound design, created by hammering metal sheets at the sides of the stage.  

Lithgow as King Lear isn’t just good casting. It’s slam-down, pitch-perfect, absolutely ideal casting. Those who grew up watching Lithgow on the TV sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun” (including myself) will no doubt remember his childlike, larger-than-life reactions and extraordinary physicality as an alien transformed into a middle-aged human. 

Those qualities, which are of course further intensified onstage, are perfectly suited to portraying the petulant, self-centered, increasingly unstable father and ruler. Plus, being a tall guy, he more than fits the oversized part.

Bening, who has not appeared onstage in New York in a quarter century, more than captures the regal haughtiness behind Lear’s daughter Goneril, while stage regular Jessica Hecht brings her characteristic excellence to Lear’s equally wicked daughter Regan. Clarke Peters (“The Wire”), looking exactly like Morgan Freeman, stands out as Gloucester, while Eric Sheffer Stevens brings an unusually comic edge to Gloucester’s villainous son Edmund.

If you go: “King Lear” plays at the Delacorte Theatre as part of Shakespeare in the Park through Aug. 17. For details on obtaining free tickets visit

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