Photo by Chris Smith
David Bridgewater as King Henry II and Melissa Johnston Price as Eleanor of Aquitaine
Since its renovation and expansion in 2010, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been re-branding itself as one of the nation’s premier art museums. Patrons have thrilled to exclusive exhibitions (Picasso, mummies, Imperial China, Chihuly), an excellent in-house restaurant (Amuse) and a comfortable and relaxed vibe.
Still, something is missing.
“It’s the number one thing that people ask me about,” museum director Alex Nyerges says.
“They say, ‘When are you going to bring live theater back to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts?’”
He’s pleased to announce that it’s finally showtime. James Goldman’s acclaimed The Lion in Winter will be performed in the VMFA’s Leslie Cheek Theater from Feb. 5 to 28, as produced by Henley Street Theatre/Richmond Shakespeare. It’s the first time that a professional stage production will enjoy a full run at the museum theater in more than a decade.
“We are thrilled,” says Jacquie O’Connor, Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare’s managing director. “I see this as something that can benefit their patrons as well as our patrons.”
For decades, the Cheek was the go-to place for Richmond stage productions. The museum’s trailblazing TheatreVirginia (first known as the Virginia Museum Theater) was the first professional Actors’ Equity company in the state. It performed on this stage for nearly 50 years before disintegrating in 2002 after its final show, Beguiled Again: The Songs of Rodgers and Hart.
The 500-seat theater, named after the museum’s influential director from 1948 to 1968, was built by Leslie Cheek himself, in consultation with the engineers who built the Yale University School of Drama facility. The Cheek theater is used today for lectures, films and the occasional performance.
“People still remember TheatreVirginia,” says Jan Powell, the artistic director of Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare. “Both theater professionals who worked there, and younger company members whose parents took them there when they were young. It has had an important life in the history of Richmond. We want to honor that.”
Nyerges says he had been sending feelers out for several years. “I have talked to every prominent theater person in town, to figure out how to best bring theater back.” In 2011, Petersburg’s Sycamore Rouge company staged a three-performance production of the play Art at the VMFA. It was kind of a test drive.
“There were things we had to work through so that there wouldn’t be any risk, financially, for either company,” O’Connor says. The museum was keen to avoid the kind of messy situation that occurred when TheatreVirginia imploded.
“TheatreVirginia was hugely successful for years,” Nyerges says. “But it was also a victim of its own success because, in many ways, it spawned the birth of professional theater in Richmond. Because of that, it essentially created its own pathway to a demise.”
The Lion in Winter is perhaps best known for its 1968 movie adaptation, starring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. “The gauntlet has been thrown down for sure,” Powell says of those powerhouse performances. Two of the region’s most celebrated actors, David Bridgewater and Melissa Johnston Price, have been cast as Henry and Eleanor in this production — “and it just doesn’t get any better than that.” The play was performed once by TheatreVirginia, back in January 1983, but Powell was unaware of that when she chose it. “It’s a classic, and it has very smart writing, it’s funny, cynical and historically based, which is good for us as a company, and for the museum.”
This is a heady time for Henley Street/Richmond Shakespeare. The merged company was one of 40 national theater groups chosen for a recent National Endowment for the Arts grant that helps bring Shakespeare to kids. The grant will fund a production of Romeo and Juliet for area high schools; the company also won a grant from CultureWorks and the Robins Foundation for a strategic branding initiative. A new name will be announced in May.
O’Connor hopes that The Lion in Winter will lead to future collaborations with the VMFA, but she says that her troupe really needs a permanent home. While it performs during the summer at Agecroft, the company stages the rest of its shows nomadically, in venues such as Virginia Repertory Theatre, Richmond CenterStage and Grace Street Theater. “Without a building, without a home, it’s very difficult for us to bounce back and forth, instead of doing what we do and doing it well, and doing more education.”
Nyerges calls the museum’s forthcoming theater collaboration an “exploration.” He’s firm about one thing: “The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will not get back into the theater business.” Still, he’s “very open” to talking about future productions. “With theater, we are giving people one more reason to come to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”
For details on The Lion in Winter performances, see henleystreettheatre.org.