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Stages | Terry Byrne

In ‘Lear,’ Lyman is the king of Boston Common

Will Lyman during a break in rehearsal of Common-wealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear,” to be performed on Boston Common.
Will Lyman during a break in rehearsal of Common-wealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear,” to be performed on Boston Common.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

King Lear refuses to back down, says Will Lyman. “He believes in his own infallibility. That’s what gets him in so much trouble.”

Lyman is starring as Lear in a milestone production for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company: This is the 20th year the company has given free performances of a Shakespeare play on Boston Common, which typically draw tens of thousands of people during their run. “King Lear,” with a set designed by Tony winner Beowulf Boritt, will be performed from July 22-Aug. 9.

“As an actor,” Lyman says, drawing a parallel to Lear, “I understand how easy it is to get caught up in the pageantry.” For three decades, he has had a successful career in TV and film, appearing in a variety of supporting roles and heading up the casts in the TV series “William Tell” (1987), “Hull High” (1990), and “Threat Matrix” (2003). He’s best known for his voice-over work, heard everywhere from “Iron Man” to his current and longtime gigs for PBS’s “Frontline” and the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials.

But for the past 10 years or so, Lyman has mostly devoted himself to the Boston theater scene, appearing in leading roles in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the Huntington Theatre’s “All My Sons,” in addition to new plays by local playwrights Steve Barkhimer, Michael Hammond, and Joyce Van Dyke.

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Lear is a role Lyman says he’d been hoping to play. Considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, “King Lear” follows a powerful monarch who decides to retire and enjoy life but is so caught up in his own importance he doesn’t realize what a mess he’s making. He plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, but when his youngest, Cordelia, refuses to follow her sisters’ lead and lavish him with insincere compliments, he becomes infuriated and banishes her. As the two remaining rival sisters plot to eliminate both their father and each other, Lear is stripped of his wealth, his power, and his dignity. Only when he’s lost everything does he realize what’s important to him.

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“I was rehearsing the scene up on the heath, when Lear is howling in the storm,” says Lyman. “Shakespeare’s language is so beautiful and so rich, I found myself ‘performing.’ You know, ‘Listen to my Lear!’” he says with a laugh. “I had to tell myself to stop bellowing, stop treating the words as sounds, because what is so rewarding about this character is that every line relates to something in his heart.”

Director Steve Maler says Lear’s pigheadedness in the beginning of the play adds to those wrenching realizations about love and loyalty that he finally absorbs in the end.

“ ‘Lear’ is the last of Shakespeare’s big ones that Commonwealth Shakespeare Company hadn’t yet taken on,” says Maler, who founded the company and has directed every one of its annual Free Shakespeare on the Common productions. “It felt like the right time to climb this mountain.”

“Mountain” is the term both Maler and Lyman use to describe the emotional arc of the tragedy. Maler admits he thought carefully before he cast Lyman in the role. “Will is the nicest guy in Boston,” Maler says. “Does he have that rage that Lear unleashes when someone crosses him?”

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“It’s not just the rage,” says Lyman, who lobbied Maler for the part. “I think he wondered if I had the ability to be vulnerable.”

Ultimately, Maler said Lyman’s total immersion in the role eliminated any doubt. “We have spent the last three months going through every line of the text,” Maler says. “That’s a luxury you rarely have with an actor.”

But when they get into the rehearsal room with other actors, Maler says that’s when the magic happens. Besides Lyman, the cast also includes Jeremiah Kissel as the Earl of Kent, Fred Sullivan Jr. as the Earl of Gloucester, Ed Hoopman as Edgar, Mickey Solis as Edmund, Deb Martin as Goneril, and Libby McKnight as Cordelia.

There’s an early scene in which Lear turns in an instant from joking with his men to fury over his daughter Goneril’s treatment of him.

“Watching the ensemble react to his anger and frustration offered insight into Will’s process and potential,” says Maler. “He digs into unexpected moments and finds those emotional connections.”

Lyman says he’s “finding it remarkably easy to go where I need to emotionally” in the role. “Lear is willing to risk everything for nothing. It’s stunning. I think my job is not to get in the way.”

Theater by the lake

The always-inventive Sleeping Weazel theater company presents “In the Wake of the Graybow Riots,” a new play with music written by Lisa Schlesinger, for a free one-night-only performance on the bandstand at Lake Massapoag in Sharon on July 23. Described by Schlesinger as a “back-porch blues play,” “Graybow Riots” is set in 1912 in the South; its title comes from the historic event when workers at a sawmill had a violent confrontation with the owners over fair labor practices. The play features original music by Ben Schmidt. The performance will be followed by a hootenanny. For more information, go to www.sleepingweazel.com.

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King Lear

Play by

William Shakespeare

Directed by Steven Maler

Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

At: Boston Common,

July 22-Aug. 9

Free. Reserved chairs available for $50 at www.commshakes.org/ support-us


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.