We think of Treat Williams as a modern kind of guy, whether he’s playing a conflicted New York cop in Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City” or the mellow dad on TV’s “Everwood,” or even, on Broadway, the unhappy husband Buddy in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”
Treat Williams in a royal robe and crown? Not so much.
“That’s legitimate,” he says with a laugh. “Nobody’s going to see me in a robe until they see me in a robe.”
But now he’s playing Henry II, the 12th-century king of England, opposite Jayne Atkinson as Eleanor of Aquitaine in Berkshire Theatre Group’s “The Lion in Winter,” which begins performances Tuesday in Stockbridge. And he says the medieval Henry is really not so different from more contemporary heroes.
THE LION IN WINTER
“He was, of his day, quite the rock star,” Williams says. “He had women falling all over him and took advantage of that. He had great power and traveled the world. There’s a lot of fire in this guy.”
There had better be, because in James Goldman’s play — which debuted on Broadway in 1966, starring Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, with Christopher Walken as the king of France — the royal Christmas gathering in 1183 will be more contentious than usual. A complex battle for succession is underway among Henry’s three sons and his wife, Eleanor, whom he’s lately had locked in prison.
“This family is as problematic and as screwed up as any family today,” Williams says, “and I think that’s the joy of the play. It’s really about a dysfunctional family Christmas and how difficult it is to get through Christmas Eve together.”
“As far as I am concerned,” Atkinson says, Eleanor “is quite unsung as the amazing queen that she was.” The actress should know as well as anyone: A few years ago, she did a one-woman show about Eleanor, who over the course of the play aged from 15 to 64. “Having been in her skin, I bring a love for her to the part that I think will serve it well,” she says.
“Eleanor was the first PR person,” Atkinson says. “She would open up the castle, invite in the townspeople, and put on the party of all parties. She was the queen of how to get the people to love her and Henry. He wasn’t into that as much. But they loved Christmas and they loved to dance . . . and so because I know that, I infuse that in the few moments where they can have a good time.”
Eleanor and Henry are “quite a tempestuous love story. It’s very deep and very big,” she says. “They built an amazing kingdom together. She was imprisoned for 10 years and even from prison she was able to foment rebellion. She wanted her son on the throne, and he eventually became king.”
“What drives this play is, there was no primogeniture. We’ve got to put that in the program!” Williams exclaims. “It was a free-for-all when Henry died, as to who would become king. There was no ‘give it to the firstborn son’; it didn’t go that way in those days. So everybody is maneuvering to become king.”
Atkinson says she gets recognized on the street now for roles on the Netflix hit “House of Cards” and network TV thrillers “Criminal Minds” and “24.” Her recent stage track record includes well-received performances in “The Rainmaker” and “Enchanted April” on Broadway. She and Williams had talked about working together for more than a decade, he says, beginning when she was considered to play his love interest on “Everwood.”
Busy with screen work, Williams mentions “a couple of action films” he’s made in recent months as if he’d been slacking off. But he notes that he did plenty of Shakespeare and other classics in repertory in Pennsylvania as a young actor. He’s no stranger to historical material. Before “Lion in Winter” rehearsals started, he says, one of the other actors asked him if he was going to use an English accent. “And I said, ‘How could I?’ There was no English spoken at the time. They were speaking either Latin or an older form of French,” Williams says. “But the structure of the sentences makes you feel as though you’re listening to people speak in another era, the way he structures the verb conjugations and the adjectives . . . so there’s no need to throw on an accent.”
Atkinson says she and her husband, actor Michel Gill, have had a place in Great Barrington since 2007. On June 30 she’ll be at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center there to host a panel discussion, “Claiming Her Place,” to benefit WAM Theatre (a company founded in 2010 “to use theater to take action for women and girls worldwide,’’ its website states). The conversation will focus on the challenges facing women in the entertainment industry — expect both “silliness and hifalutin talk,” Atkinson says — with Gill, Lauren Ambrose, Marin Mazzie, Debra Jo Rupp, and Linus Roache.
Williams has long owned a spread in Manchester, Vt., that he says has grown to 15 acres, with an 1823 farmhouse and a pond. For the first time in years, he recently got to spend a lot of time there with his family, he says, “playing on my tractor and making maple syrup,” 5 gallons’ worth. He is glad to be back in the Berkshires, he says, but he was also glad to get back in the rehearsal room for this production.
“That’s what I’ve missed, this process,” Williams says. “The last time I really had this process was on ‘Prince of the City,’ 30 years ago. Sidney [Lumet] came from the theater, and we rehearsed with [blocking] tape and chairs and tables. We rehearsed for three weeks and had run-throughs of the movie as if it were a play. And everyone knew where the play peaked, and how it traveled.
“The last 20 years, every film set I’ve gone into, they say, ‘Here’s where you stand, go!’ I have those skills; I know what to do,” Williams says. “But part of the joy of acting is that period of discovery and making sure it makes sense and how do these people relate to one another and what is the pace of this scene. . . . It’s delicious to have the time to really find these characters and get the play on its feet.”