John Lithgow strides in from upstage at the Delacorte Theater. He is cradling an old leather map in his arms and, despite the fluffy white beard and long burlap gown, he looks just like John Lithgow playing medieval dress-up.
Three hours later, the actor -- not generally known as a Shakespearean -- takes the same journey onto the stage in the last act of "King Lear," the second offering of the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park. This time, he is cradling the corpse of a young queen in almost exactly the same way. He has ridden the emotional tsunami of one of the most daunting roles in the repertory and he emerges every inch -- every battered inch -- a king.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Lithgow makes an eloquent Lear, a man whose journey from royal majesty to exiled madness and ultimate understanding has been attempted a bit too often in New York lately. But Lithgow brings an internal coherence we don't always see, and this Lear's fall from petulant imperiousness to yowling primitive is both impressive and agonizing.
Alas, he is one of the few satisfactions in this drab, unevenly cast production, directed with an atypical lack of inspiration by Daniel Sullivan. At best, Annette Bening, not on a New York stage since 1988, is methodical and self-conscious as Goneril, one of Lear's horrid daughters, while the usually splendid Jessica Hecht is bizarrely shrill and jokey as sister Regan.
At least Sullivan resists turning the ungrateful daughters into Cinderella's ugly-stepsisters in two of the least credible women Shakespeare ever created. And Jessica Collins shows some welcome backbone as Lear's rejected good daughter, Cordelia.
Highlights in the cast include Steven Boyer as an unusually angry Fool and Jay O. Sanders as a sympathetic Kent. Eric Sheffer Stevens has wicked fun with the evil bastard-son Edmund, contrasting powerfully with the primal sacrifice of Chukwudi Iwuji as brother Edgar.
Except for those resonant echoes in Lear's first and final entrances, the earth-colored production is straightforward to a fault. The set (John Lee Beatty) has a stage made of logs on a dirt floor in front of a tall spirit-stifling wall that changes slightly with lights. It is hard not to remember critic Kenneth Tynan's famous Lear observation -- that is, "to feel the cold of the heath, we must first feel the warmth of the hearth." We do feel all degrees of temperature in Lithgow's Lear, a performance in which hot and cold both burn.
WHAT "King Lear"
WHERE Delacorte Theater, Central Park, entrance on 81st Street and Central Park West
INFO Free with ticket; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Eloquent Lithgow, drab "King Lear"