Finally: last but certainly not least, Mary Stuart.

I’ve only seen this play once before, and never studied it; what I remember best about the last production I saw was the rain storm. Antoni Cimolino has no objection to water on stage (he staged a heck of a rain storm for The Grapes of Wrath, in addition to a proper river for the actors to jump into), but he has staged Mary Stuart at the Paterson Theater at the Stratford Festival, which is a long runway stage with seating on three sides. So the forecast was always for clear skies.

Structurally and thematically, the play bears some resemblance to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Both plays feature a confrontation between personalities that is also a conflict of principles. Both feature a monarch who must do something arguably quite evil for reasons of state, and who labors to salve his or her conscience by blaming others for not blessing the action. Both have a big scene where the character in the dock finally gets to say what he or she really thinks but has been holding in for fear of sealing his or her doom. Both end with a long-anticipated but dubiously ordered execution. Both turn on questions of religion, more specifically, the conflict between English Protestantism and the old religion of Catholicism. And both can consequently seem quite dry.

The big difference is that Mary Stuart has sex, and Bolt’s play has none, notwithstanding that the reigning monarch in A Man For All Seasons is Henry VIII. And we are very lucky that Cimolino has decided that the sex matters a lot more than the religion or the politics – that is to say, what matters most is the full-blooded human drama not the drama of ideas.

He puts his actors in period costumes, but the set (designed by Eo Sharp) is a hodge-podge of period and modern, letting us know that this isn’t a story confined to period (and hence not beholden to either the politics of Elizabeth and Mary’s day or of Schiller’s). And the whole stage is surrounded by barbed wire – which, because it remains in place (perforce) for both the scenes in Mary’s prison and the scenes at Elizabeth’s court, which drives home the message that this isn’t a play with a particular political axe to grind, but a play about people who are imprisoned by their roles whether they have theoretically absolute power or are subject to it.

The other thing we’re lucky about is that he has such titanically strong actresses to play Queens Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth can come off as a distinctly unappealing character – the play sets things up so that Mary is the romantic one in both senses of the word, with Elizabeth both cold and calculating and, underneath, kind of needy (Leicester manipulates her rather easily because of this). And, of course, by the time the play begins, Mary has repented of her tempestuous past (if not yet the idea of regaining her freedom, and her throne in Scotland), and found Jesus, a conversion that is portrayed as entirely authentic, so she can get us both ways, as the more fun sinner and as the incipient saint.

Seana McKenna, though, plays Elizabeth not as psychologically insecure but as institutionally so – someone acutely aware of the inherent vulnerability of her position, and working very hard to play the game well enough to stay on top. She comes off as a fundamentally sad, lonely woman, but neither cold nor needy. And Lucy Peacock’s Mary is a marvel. It takes a very particular kind of woman to decide, on the way to the executioner’s block, having already made confession and renounced this life and her own more-than-checkered past, to stop to turn the head of an old admirer who just betrayed her. That’s what Mary does – and the greatness of Peacock’s performance lies in the fact that there’s nothing calculating about her action, that there’s no awareness of any contradiction between those two personae, the saint and the coquette. It’s a moment that really shows us why men adored her so, and why she was so terribly dangerous to the state.

(As an aside: by saying that “the sex matters, not the politics” I may appear to be endorsing the CW approach to period drama. So let me just say for the record that if those young hotties can muster one tenth the sex appeal of McKenna and Peacock by the time they are half their age, they will melt the cameras.)

The supporting cast are not afforded the same opportunity to stretch to a full three dimensions. These men each have a specific part to play in the drama, and they play it. Elizabeth can trust Lord Burleigh (Ben Carlson) for his absolute loyalty; Shrewsbury (Brian Dennehy) for his integrity of character; Leicester (Geraint Wyn Davies), well, she can’t really trust him at all, and she knows it, but damn he looks good (and he’s a good bit cleverer than anyone else in her court). Ian Lake does a scary turn as a raving fanatic, Mortimer, who positions himself as a double agent but isn’t nearly clever enough to pull it off, and Patricia Collins cuts a noble figure as Mary’s loyal lady in waiting, Hanna Kennedy. On some level, the circling lords’ agendas and complicated politics matter, but they are really only more bits of scenery. The play is the confrontation between these two women, and these two ways of being a powerful woman.

Mary Stuart plays at the Stratford Festival’s Paterson stage through October 19th.