STOCKBRIDGE — Early in Act 1 of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s “The Lion in Winter, ’’ King Henry II, portrayed by Treat Williams, says jovially to his young mistress with a sweep of his arm: “Come, let’s go downstairs and meet the family.’’
Family? Scorpions in a bottle are more cuddly than the Plantagenet clan. But what malicious/delicious fun it is watching them scheme and connive and betray one another in this sterling production of James Goldman’s play, directed by Robert Moss.
“The Lion in Winter’’ unfolds during a not-so-festive Christmas in 1183 at Henry’s palace, where the main event is the no-holds-barred battle of wits between the British king and Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Jayne Atkinson, the wife and queen whom Henry has kept imprisoned for a decade but has now trotted out for the holiday.
THE LION IN WINTER
Henry and Eleanor are at odds over which of their three sons will get to succeed him when he dies, but Williams and Atkinson suggest in their finely drawn performances that what actually lies beneath the royal duo’s verbal jousting and political jockeying is an undying love of the game, and, very possibly, each other.
The contemporary stage is not often home to this kind of literate, witty, twisty excursion through the private side of history, and more’s the pity, although it should be noted that “The Lion in Winter’’ struggled to find an audience in 1966, when it premiered on Broadway.
After receiving what Goldman dryly described in a later edition of the play as a “thunderous dismissal in The New York Times,’’ the show ran for fewer than three months. But the 1968 film version, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, with an Oscar-winning adaptation by Goldman, greatly enhanced the popularity of the stage version of “The Lion in Winter.’’
In any case, there’s still plenty of giddyup in this warhorse, and Moss, the founder of Playwrights Horizons, demonstrates a sure hand on the reins. The director guides a strong ensemble through the play’s rapid-fire shifts from comedy to high-stakes drama on a vaulted set (by Brett J. Banakis) that creates the façade of stony solidity even as the family is coming apart at the seams.
The three sons vying for the throne could scarcely be more different. Eleanor’s favorite, Richard, played by Aaron Costa Ganis with riveting intensity, is fierce, warlike, and unstoppably ambitious. Henry’s initial choice to succeed himself is, for some reason, the feckless, pimply, whiny 16-year-old John (Karl Gregory), a walking punch line. Left out of the power equation and bitterly determined to rectify that omission is Geoffrey (Tommy Schrider), a calculating and utterly ruthless opportunist.
But then that pretty much describes every character onstage, including Henry’s mistress, Alais (Tara Franklin), and her brother, Philip, the king of France, portrayed by Matthew Stucky. All of them prove to be quite practiced in the deadly dance of maneuver, plot, and counter-plot. And all of them prove willing to forge alliances and disband them in the name of expediency while the fate of nations and their voiceless citizens hangs in the balance.
Williams, who starred in Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City’’ early in his movie career, cuts a ruggedly charismatic figure as the gray-bearded king of England. Brandishing a sword in a showdown with his three disloyal sons, Henry proves he’s still not a figure to be trifled with. The king may have death on his mind — that’s why he’s taking steps to prepare an orderly transition — but Williams’s Henry has plenty of life left in him.
So does Atkinson’s Eleanor, so long as life offers her a chance to thwart Henry — and to be close to him. A respected stage actress, Atkinson appears on the Netflix series “House of Cards,’’ and her regally composed Eleanor always seems to have another card up her sleeve. Few kind words are thrown Eleanor’s way, not even by Richard, the son she’s championing. The queen possesses a spine of steel, and as for her heart, the family’s assumption seems to be that she doesn’t have one.
But we can almost see it break when Eleanor watches Henry kiss Alais. In that moment, Atkinson makes clear that for this lioness in winter, it’s suddenly gotten very cold.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.