STOCKBRIDGE -- It is Christmas 1183 in the winter court of King Henry II at Chinon, France and no one is in a giving mood.
Henry's headstrong, wily wife, Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine, has joined her husband, his mistress and their sons, John, Richard and Geoffrey. The stakes are high -- nothing less than the succession to Henry's throne. By the time James Goldman's play, "The Lion in Winter," has run its course, it will have been a Christmas to remember for the Plantagenet clan.
"If I were to rename the play, I would call it ‘A Family Christmas,' " said Treat Williams, who is playing Henry in Berkshire Theatre Group's production of Goldman's play, opening Saturday evening at 8 at BTG's Fitzpatrick Main Stage after a week of previews.
"(Britain) is up for grabs. The boys want the crown. Lives are lost. Each time someone goes on the attack, the stakes are higher."
At the heart of "The Lion in Winter" are the dynamics of family relationships -- mother and sons; father and sons; siblings and siblings; husband and wife; husband and mistress.
"What family doesn't go through the things this family goes through?" Williams' co-star, Jayne Atkinson, asked rhetorically. "(Henry and Eleanor) were people. They had kids."
"Eleanor and Henry and their children sometimes feel as real to me as people I have dinner with," Goldman wrote in his introduction to the play. "I feel as if I literally know them."
"I think every character has a moment of feeling abandoned," Williams said during an interview in a rehearsal studio at BTG's Lavan Center, where he was joined by Atkinson and their director, Robert Moss.
Rounding out the cast are Tara Franklin as Henry's young mistress, Alais; Aaron Costa Ganis, Karl Gregory and Tommy Schrider as Eleanor and Henry's sons, Richard, John and Geoffrey, respectively; and Matthew Stucky as Phillip, the young King of France.
Produced in New York in 1966 with Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris as the leads, "The Lion in Winter" received decidedly mixed reviews and closed after only 83 performances.
The hugely popular 1968 film, however -- which starred Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn -- rescued a play that seemed fated to be forgotten. It's been widely produced ever since.
"I have always loved this play," said Moss, who saw the original production and produced, but did not direct, "The Lion in Winter" in his first season as artistic director of Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.
The clash in Goldman's play is not only in the tensions among the members of Henry's family. "The Lion in Winter" roars in its language as early classical tones bump right up against frankly anachronistic 20th century colloquialisms and phrasings.
"One minute you're in a Noel Coward back-and-forth and the next minute you're playing ‘Othello,' " Williams said.
The incisive exchanges between Henry and Eieanor are not only indicative of their relationship. Their talk, Williams says, "is a way (for each of them) to exercise the brain; sort of the Algonquin Roundtable of the 12th century."
"The play looks very straightforward," Moss said, "but nothing is that simple.
"Goldman did his homework. There are questions he deliberately doesn't address.
"This is the one night everyone (in the family) is together and everyone is determined to accomplish something, all in this one night."
"We have such big heights and depths to hit," said Atkinson.
On stage ...
What: “The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman. Directed by Robert Moss
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
When: Now through July 13. Press opening — 8 p.m. Saturday. Eves.: Mon., Tue., Thu.-Sat. 8; Wed. 7. Mats.: Sat. 2.
Where: Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge
How: (413) 997-4444; BerkshireTheatreGroup.org; at the box office — Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield or Fitzpatrick Main Stage