FAMILY HOMES lost to bad mortgages, the elderly left penniless, and a tanking economy: 2012 has plenty in common with 1929. Taking advantage of our present moment, playwright C.S. Whitcomb has chosen the Great Depression as the setting for Lear's Follies, her adaptation of King Lear commissioned as half of Portland Shakespeare Project's Season of Lear. (King Lear itself opens at Artists Rep this weekend.)
Colonel King (Tobias Andersen) is the patriarch of a Virginia tobacco empire who decides to divide his wealth and power between his three children. King's sons—conniving Robert (Gary Norman) and rageful Jefferson (Gavin Hoffman, striking)—are happy to stroke his ego, unlike modest daughter Cora (performed by Amanda Washko with impressive vulnerability). When Cora demurs, King disowns her, to the dismay of loyal friend Doc Kent (warmly played by Dave Bodin).
Audience members versed in their Shakespeare know what happens next: King's sons turn out to be cads disinterested in supporting their daddy's sunset years. As the stock market tumbles, King and his Fool—vaudeville refugee Jonesy (Matt Smith)—are cast out to wander across the face of the troubled nation.
Andersen's turn as King doesn't revolutionize Lear, but his deterioration is affecting. Unfortunately, Whitcomb uses Jonesy as a proxy for berating King, hollering Shakespeare quotes at him (from King Lear, of course) and delivering a lecture on classical tragedy. And while he mugs capably, Smith lacks the vocal chops to really sell his rendition of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
A small problem: the song wasn't written until 1931. Likewise, the action suggests it's been weeks since King's disastrous decision, but the pace of collapse implies years. The staging could also use tightening. A scene between the King sons and their wives (Melissa Whitney and Katie Butler, interchangeably catty Southern belles) has dramatic potential, but intimate moments are strangely played out in full voice and open view. A hurricane doesn't seem to involve wind or rain.
Balancing this is some fine audiovisual work by Lucas Welsh; a standout is a short, hilarious silent film version of King Lear's Edgar/Edmund B-plot.
Despite some problems, Lear's Follies is no off-season consolation; it has plenty to offer an audience eager for more substantial fare. No need to go begging.