SAN DIEGO — The difficulty of staging "The Winter's Tale" is legendary. Characters are at the mercy of a crazy plot that wildly mixes genres and tones, there is a leap of 16 years between the third and fourth acts and one stage direction (perhaps the most famous in all of Shakespeare) reads "Exit pursued by a bear."
In making his directing debut at the Old Globe with this late romance of Shakespeare's, artistic director Barry Edelstein clearly isn't playing it safe. But he knows the play intimately, having staged it off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company, and in this new production he has enlisted a core group of actors who bring refreshing clarity to what is undeniably a tricky text.
Best of all, the emotion of this play about a marriage mangled and restored, children rejected and embraced, and loved ones bitterly parted and reunited is powerfully delivered.
PHOTOS: Best in theater 2013 | Charles McNulty
You may question, as I did, some of the staging and design choices of Edelstein's production. But I defy you to sit with unmoistened eyes through the final reconciliation scene, in which the statue of a dead wife stirs miraculously to life. A sad tale may be best for winter, as the play tells us, but it is in the blend of melodramatic loss and fantasy happy ending that Shakespeare turns us into blubbering believers.
Billy Campbell — taking a break from his current TV series, "Helix" — plays Leontes, the King of Sicilia, who is inexplicably stricken with savage jealousy. This is a part that requires an actor to make whiplash turns, and Campbell gamely answers the call.
There is no Iago duping Leontes' imagination, only the self-stoking fever of groundless suspicion. The king has convinced himself that his wife, Hermione (a moving Natacha Roi), is having an affair with his boyhood friend and guest, Polixenes (Paul Michael Valley), King of Bohemia.
Leontes sends his right-hand man, Camillo (Cornell Womack), to murder Polixenes. But Camillo, being honorable, warns Polixenes instead of the danger he's in, and the two escape to Bohemia, leaving Leontes no other outlet for his vengeance but his goodly, pregnant wife.
Casualties ensue. First Mamillius (Jordi Bertran), Hermione and Leontes' adorable son, who loves tinkling out tunes on his toy piano. Then Hermione, whose death is announced by Paulina (a supercharged Angel Desai), who appoints herself warden of Leontes' overwhelming guilt.
Meanwhile, Perdita, Hermione's newborn baby, was spared immediate death only to be abandoned in the wilds of Bohemia by Paulina's husband, Antigonus (a vivid Mark Nelson). He is punished for carrying out Leontes' order by that man-pursuing bear, here represented as a trio of growling creatures that flash on stage in a manner that sends up the play's rollicking artificiality.
Music director Taylor Peckham plays Michael Torke's original score on an onstage piano, much like the way old melodramas used to be performed. The accompaniment coloring in Leontes' violent emotion can seem heavy-handed at times. "The Winter's Tale" presents such a jarring mix of tonalities that it probably isn't necessary to stress the more menacing notes of Leontes' behavior. A lighter touch would have conveyed with more agility his descent into tyranny.
The play's movement to Bohemia in the fourth act occurs with makeshift pageantry. There's nothing in the least realistic about scenic designer Wilson Chin's handing of this transition — and why should there be, given that Time itself (a role handled by the chorus) makes a cameo appearance? String lights and giant paper snowflakes — the school-assembly aesthetic is meant to be winkingly theatrical, though some of the enchantment gets lost in the shuffle.
The grown-up Perdita (Maya Kazan), rescued as an infant by a kindly old shepherd (played by Nelson, the same actor who, as Antigonus, just left her helplessly crying), is one of the sweetest of Shakespeare's ingénues. Her love story with Florizel (a charming A.Z. Kelsey) saves this pastoral retreat from some of the antic confusion wrought by the cowboy clowning of Paul Kandel's Autolycus. (Kandel's portrayal of this jesting larcenist is a tour de force, but a tour de force that isn't smoothly integrated into the production.)
Kazan doesn't yet possess a strong stage voice, but she has everything else that's needed to make us fall in love with Perdita — natural radiance, unassuming intelligence and gentleness. Kelsey's Florizel is the ideal match for her, and the purity of feeling between them stands in favorable contrast to all the adult misbehavior in the play.
Edelstein magnificently conducts the fifth-act reconciliation scene, which if not Shakespeare's finest is a vast improvement over the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the ludicrous last moments of "Cymbeline."
Campbell's increasingly affecting Leontes has earned our forgiveness through the torment of his conscience, and Desai's Paulina is ready to orchestrate the ultimate magic trick of bringing Hermione back from the dead. (Judith Dolan's royal costuming of this "statue" aids the transformation.)
"The Winter's Tale," a fable for adults who know all too well that losses of this nature are unrecoverable, entices our belief through the sorcery of its dramatic poetry. It's a credit to this production that by end of the play fiction seems even more real than everyday life.
PHOTOS: Hollywood stars on stage
Guide to the L.A. in 'Her'