History plays can be thrilling but they can also plod, and adapter-director Jason Loewith’s new treatment of “Mary Stuart” does both. The show is streamlined for six actors, and at its peak their sterling performances turn Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 German drama into a taut political thriller. Even so, “Mary Stuart” — which tells the saga of the titular Catholic queen and her Protestant rival, Elizabeth I — does a lot of explaining, making it an occasional chore for those who aren’t hardcore fans of royal politics or classical drama.
Still, this premiere in the Olney Theatre Center’s intimate lab space has a lot of upside. It’s a modern dress show on a small glossy stage, which is a terrific showcase for the unimpeachable acting of Loewith’s powerhouse sextet. Eleasha Gamble is a Mary Stuart who has bulked up on pride, having little else to lean on since her cousin Elizabeth has clapped her in prison. Mary, Queen of Scots, craves a meeting with Elizabeth to plead for her freedom, and as her history is rehashed in gobs of exposition (the slowest part of the play), Gamble etches a portrait of coiled majesty.
As Elizabeth, Megan Anderson steams with restlessness. Elizabeth has more to think about than Mary does: Elizabeth has all the options and pressures of power, and a tremendous fear of losing it. She has imprisoned her cousin because she fears that Mary will lead an uprising against her. Pressure mounts on Elizabeth to decide whether to execute Mary or spare her.
The anxious calculations play out rapidly on Anderson’s face, yet her command is absolute as she issues orders and sometimes reverses field with her advisers. Each adviser is vividly etched, and they give the drama a suspenseful edge as they argue out competing options. Burleigh, played with prosecutorial force by Paul Morella, makes the case for execution. In a wise and mournful key, Mitchell Hébert, as Shrewsbury, counsels against it. A combustible Chris Genebach plays both sides as the double-dealing Leicester, who has a romantic interest with both queens. Jake Ryan Lozano is equally two-faced as the impassioned Mary loyalist Mortimer.
As this court bristles with treachery, it becomes the “Mary Stuart” you want to see, and it’s very like Schiller’s original; Loewith’s adaptation, with language that largely sounds like the elevated speech of court, hardly yanks the play inside out. The drama focuses substantially on powerful women navigating a masculine world rife with unfair expectations, and Loewith foregrounds how complicated and compromised the queens’ powers are. At one point he has Gamble and Anderson eye-to-eye and flat on the floor as the rival queens finally meet.
Each performer doubles in supporting roles, and Gamble has one of the most resonant multiple tracks as she pivots from playing Mary to an officer in Elizabeth’s court. Ivania Stack’s modern-dress costumes (lots of jeans and trendy boots) encourage a kind of grounded, appealingly offhand streak in the acting. The occasional addition of Elizabethan elements, though — a kerchief here, a ruff there — makes it seem as if the show hasn’t quite decided how it wants to balance the eras, despite a particularly striking costume choice near the end. The scenic design by Loewith and Richard Ouellette is mainly a shiny floor, a shadowy chamber that gets a sinister air from Colin K. Bills’s lights. It’s a terrific atmosphere in which to act, and the acting is what carries this show.
Mary Stuart, adapted by Jason Loewith from Friedrich Schiller’s “Maria Stuart.” Directed by Jason Loewith. Composer/sound designer, Matthew M. Nielson. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through June 9 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. $64-$74. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.