Dram Tree Shakespeare's take on the classic tragedy runs through March 25 in Wilmington.

With intractable family dynamics, ruthless power grabs and a title character beset by the indignities of age, William Shakespeare's tragedy "King Lear" is a play with a rather dim view of this thing called life. If we're being charitable, it's not so much depressing as it is a bracing dose of reality, a slap in the face to keep us from kidding ourselves about what's going on, and what's coming up.

In any case, the weighty themes of "Lear" make it one of the biggest theatrical challenges there is, and by staging the play for its fourth annual production, Wilmington theater company Dram Tree Shakespeare shows its considerable, and commendable, ambition. "King Lear" opened last week and runs through March 25.

Returning to the Spartan but charming space of McEachern's Warehouse downtown, where Dram Tree did shows in 2015 and '16 before moving over to the DREAMS Garage last year, "King Lear" is helmed by guest director Jamie Rocha Allan, a London native who was active in that city's theatrical scene and who now lives in the United States.

Allan keeps the play in its original setting of a pre-Christian, pagan Britain, with tribal drums to open the show and lots of fur in Stephanie Aman's costume design, and the director has his cast go with a conversational tone for the most part. This drives home the idea that these characters are people we know who just happen to be using Shakespearean language, but the naturalistic approach results in a pretty sedate affair, although the play has some standout moments and does build in intensity during the second act. 

Lear is one of the most demanding roles in theater, and Raleigh actor Jerome Davis turns in a competent performance even if his Lear often lacks for dynamics. His take on the king's descent into madness is rather subtle and, despite some well-done effects by sound designer Shea Madison, Lear's famous raging against the elements during a storm on the heath feels stiff.

The dual plots concern Lear's banishment of his favorite daughter, Cordelia (Grace Carlyle Berry), after she refuses to flatter him, and the king's betrayal by Cordelia's devious siblings, Goneril (Maggie Miller) and Regan (Alissa Fetherolf). Meanwhile, Lear's man the Earl of Gloucester (John Denison), is deceived by his illegitimate son, Edmund (Tyler Crittenden), into believing that his first-born, the upright Edmund (Jordan Wolfe), has betrayed him.

Crittenden is nicely changeable as the villain-with-a-legit-grudge Edmund, compellingly self-righteous in his soliloquies ("Now, gods, stand up for bastards!") and ingratiating while in the company of others. Fetherolf adds some fire to Regan's scene during which she urges her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Marcus Skye Lewis), to blind Gloucester, while Miller gives an ice-queen sheen to Goneril and Wolfe shines when Edgar is forced to take on the guise of the grubby and nearly naked beggar Poor Tom. Randy Davis is in fine form as Lear's fool, scoring laughs with such famous clapbacks as, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise."

Dram Tree's production of "King Lear" is enhanced by solid stagecraft. Instead of being in the round like the shows at McEachern's in 2015 and 2016, Max Lydy's set is an angular thrust surrounded by panels awash in beautifully abstract projections from Yana Birykova that evoke everything from trees and feathers to blood cells and strands of DNA. The projections totally make the look of the entire show, and help connect it to the natural world the pagans worshiped. (Adding to the charm of the space is the tidy "King Lear Lounge," where you can enjoy a drink while checking out regal portraits by Wilmington artist Nathan Verwey.)

Ideally, "King Lear" packs a punch that knocks you for a loop. Dram Tree's production is more tap you on the shoulder and whisper in your ear, which, while much more polite, doesn't gets its point across quite so effectively.

Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or John.Staton@StarNewsOnline.com.