When two strong willed women face off over top political leadership in an era of near total male dominance, it is a battle worth watching.For superb actors Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock as cousins Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, it is a life and death struggle for the throne of England after the death of King Henry VIII. Under the title “Mary Stuart,” the gripping play by Friedrich Schiller with an all-star cast, is at the Stratford Festival this summer in an English adaptation by Peter Oswald. At first the two queens seem very different.Roman Catholic Mary is supported and strengthened by her religious faction and faith, and Protestant Elizabeth has the support of the new English Protestants and been toughened by a few years in the Tower of London before being elevated to a shaky regime.The play opens at a pivotal moment. Both are stressed by their positions as prisoners of their respective situations. Mary is physically isolated in cell-like quarters at a castle and Elizabeth is trapped like a female chief executive with an all male board whose members all have ulterior motives. Both their lives are complicated by their relationships with the men who are also interested in them as attractive mates with access to power.Both are very insecure: Mary could be put to death by Queen Elizabeth who, in turn, fears being murdered or deposed by Mary’s impassioned supporters. They are strong personalities, but each in her own way. Statuesque and romantically attractive, Mary knows her situation has turned riskier and when the youthful Mortimer (Ian Lake) throws himself at her it is as both savior and lover. Mary treads a careful but artfully drawn line between accepting political support while subtly dampening his ardor.Similarly, Geraint Wyn Davies, as the Earl of Leicester who lavishes his charm and good looks on both queens, focuses them on Elizabeth along with his political recommendation to meet with Mary in the only fictional addition to the script. The results are mixed. McKenna displays a crafty caution fearing she will weaken her public image and engender resentment if she acts personally to eliminate her competition for the throne. Intriguingly, it foreshadows the future of democratic campaigning.Mary opens their meeting submissively but, meeting with resistance, quickly resumes her assertive personality. As Elizabeth digs in her heels, the rancor comes back and Mary deflates with a sense of defeat. Back in her council chamber, Elizabeth wrestles with the reality her throne will never be secure while Mary lives.As the relationship unwinds, Brian Dennehy and Ben Carlson, as the Earl of Shrewsbury and Lord Burleigh boldly play their final cards bringing about a labored and later denied decision by the Queen who will survive. The rest is history.“Mary Stuart” is presented in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre through Sept. 21. For tickets and information visit Stratfordfestival.ca or call 800-567-1600.