We could call it regional theater’s own strange little version of the family protection act–the group of cautionary domestic dramas that have blanketed the area at the close of the spring season. But with due respect to Tolstoy, not only are all happy family shows alike; after a while, the unhappy ones start to sound pretty similar as well. “Beware infidelity,” warns Private Eyes, Dinner with Friends and An Infinite Ache. “Communicate–and leave bad games alone,” pleads Ache and The Lion in Winter. “And whatever you do, once things have started going bad, don’t go straight,” hisses Killer Joe, the joker in the deck.

Collective wisdom, from a brace of “family” shows the whole family really shouldn’t go to.

There’s no telling, for example, what instructive tricks present-day siblings might have picked up from the Machiavellian trio of sons in The Lion in Winter , which closed last weekend at Theatre in the Park. All kidding aside, this super-sized production proved a commodious vehicle for two of the region’s larger talents: Ira David Wood III and Lynda Clark, whose robust performances as Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine gave this show an unusually crunchy center.

Those familiar with James Goldman’s script, which fueled a brief Broadway run in 1966 for Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston before Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole’s Oscar-winning 1968 film, are already anticipating the correctness of the casting in this production.

Let that stand confirmed. Here, clearly Clark and Wood are two grandmasters who ably manipulate not only the characters around them but the audience as well, in their portrayal of two aging chess players poised over a board whose surface has all but been worn smooth after decades of use. Such is the difficulty in trying to achieve checkmate when neither side is willing to sacrifice the king, the queen or the knights still on the table: Richard (who later would be called Lionheart and take the throne from his father), Geoffrey and John (whose successive reign would provoke the signing of the Magna Carta), the pair’s surviving sons.

In strong supporting roles, Wood’s son, Ira David IV, finds the ice-cold sang-froid of the ever-calculating Geoffrey while James Miller conveys the thud and blunder of frustrated warrior Richard. Character actor Thomas Porter convinces in the thankless role of the bratty, brainless John, the favorite of the king. Zachary Armfield leaves a bit too much in check as Philip, the visiting French monarch.

By the time we meet them, the brothers have learned too much about strategy–and not enough about love–from parents who have roped them into the family sport. The brisk-paced plot swirls about us as the quintet keeps the board on which they stand in constant motion. Ultimately, all players prove trapped by the game, in a work where only the final switchback of emotions challenges our belief.

Goldman’s rewarding script gives Eleanor a quiver filled with one-liners, which Clark delivers with aplomb. In the middle of a sibling quarrel between Richard and John she snaps, “Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife! We all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re all barbarians!”

But ultimately Lion depicts Henry and Eleanor as an old married couple who, at this late date, can’t entirely stop loving–or start trusting–one another. It’s poignant when both sue for peace at different times, in moves that suit their momentary stratagems. When this happens, for a moment we can taste the possibility of something new. But then someone in this pentad pulls another fast one. They love each other–but they love the game a little more. No one disengages. History trundles on.

Lessons left unlearned brings us to Killer Joe , the season closer at Raleigh Ensemble Players which ended May 7. The company’s second exercise in extremity this year unleashed Tracy Letts’ visceral, pitch-black comedy on designer Miyuki Su’s audacious set: a cross-section of a run-down mobile home, reconstructed (with the side walls taken out) in Artspace’s Studio Two. As the crash site of what’s remaining of the Smith family of lesser Dallas, Texas, we can tell from the start it isn’t quite the home of gracious living. Not when Chris, a mangy, half-bright son, wakes his father Ansel up in the middle of the night to beg for money–the only way he’s going to keep a pack of loan sharks from collecting flesh and blood from a drug deal gone bad.

An overweight and bearded Ansel pops a Pabst and listens, dressed only in a pair of dingy briefs. His reply: “Get out of town, quick.”

But Chris convinces Ansel that his problems might be solved if dad agrees to a contract killing, done on spec, against Chris’ mom, Ansel’s ex-wife. Chris’ sister, Dottie, agrees–from the altered state of a sleepwalker who walks in on their conversation.

Letts’ main point? The family ties bind a little differently when they’ve been applied by poor white trash.

Pardon my language. There’s simply no imagining this show had it been focused on any other minority on this planet. Still, how we wish REP had tried.

For perhaps that might effectively have punctured the myth by which illiteracy and deficient education, a corresponding total lack of economic opportunity, the death of hope and imagination, drug addiction–and the sexual use of a woman functioning at the level of a 12-year-old–are made a suitable source of public entertainment. Only, of course, when they’re framed upon an appropriately distant “Other.”

Like rednecks, for example. Pardon my language.

Apparently some of us still don’t get it. A minority joke doesn’t magically become one iota less damaging or more appropriate because it’s been simply turned 180 degrees.

If Letts’ work holds a mirror up to our own prejudices, that’s useful. But I don’t begin to believe that’s his first intent. Not with the sustained capacity for brutality, titillation and sexual violence on display here from first to last. Let us not kid ourselves: Letts leans his tent a lot more toward Tarantino than he ever does Walker Evans. This is exploitation, not sociology.

While we’re on the topic of exploitation: I have now seen two regional actors too many appear nude on REP’s stage, in circumstances that ultimately did not justify their sacrifice. At what point does even a critique of exploitation become the thing itself? Arguably when people put their bodies on the line in front of paying strangers–and have to live with the experience from that point forward.

As it stands, Letts’ apparent conclusions in Killer Joe strangely mirror those of ol’ Dub’s on particular social issues: Some people just ain’t no damn good. And ain’t it pathetic when they try to go straight?

So much for that hotbed of liberalism known as the theater.

A two-person show is always a gamble. Unfortunately, Triad Stage has made something of a losing wager in An Infinite Ache. David Schulner’s imaginative enough script depicts a relationship in extreme fast-forward, from first date to deathbed, during its intermissionless 90 minutes. This it does by segueing, seamlessly, between every aspect of a relationship that takes place in a bedroom–the one locale for all these scenes. Sex, altercations, conflicting ambitions, kids, infidelity, shifts in identity in a relationship: these and other issues come up with a disarming degree of frankness on Takeshi Kata’s changing blue rebus of a set.

All of which is good–up until the first moment Brian Louis Hoffman speaks. A critic never truly likes to zing an actor, but under Jay Putnam’s direction, Hoffman shrills his lines throughout this play, an overbearing presence totally out of proportion with Ann Hu’s more measured approach. The effect could be compared to two actors performing the same work, simultaneously–but one to a black box audience, while the other is shouting to an arena.

As Charles, his anxiety-ridden first encounter with Hu’s Hope veers straight into the pathological, taxing our forbearance within the first five minutes.

Then we learn we’ve got to stay with fundamentally the same dynamic for the duration of the show. A primary miscalculation, in direction and performance, which sabotages the charms this show could have.

**1/2 Accidental Death of an Anarchist , Burning Coal Theatre–Unfortunately, Simon Nye wasn’t content with just translating Nobel laureate Dario Fo’s commedia dell’arte-influenced political farce: Apparently he believed he had to update it as well. As a result, his 2003 adaptation lingers over so lengthy a list of cultural, political and manmade atrocities since 1970 (when Death was actually written) that we’re ultimately left to wonder what Fo’s play might originally have been about.

When a court has this many cases before it, it’s madness to expect anything more than summary judgment. In this play the central character, a charming madman impersonating an investigating judge, fails to make much of an impact on any of the dozens of subjects he suddenly brings up–and just as instantly dismisses.

All of which is bad enough before Burning Coal muddies things further by superimposing Nye’s world upon present-day Raleigh through a distracting series of local cultural references and clever-clever name checks. The resulting case of double-vision resolves little in a show that can’t stop winking at us long enough to get much of anything else done. Rather than wondering what Fo’s original targets were, we’re preoccupied instead with the Coals’ own possible agendas against various regional fixtures.

George Jack shines as police patsy Bertozzo, but director Jerry Davis reduces Lynne Marie Guglielmi to the lowest of common denominators as critic/sexpot/all-purpose media whipping child Morla Miffed. Newcomer Philip Mutz pours kilocalories into a manic Martin Short/Robin Williams take as the madman-judge. But with a script this punch-drunk, he floats like a butterfly but rarely stings like a bee, in a show that swings–and misses–at most of the targets it lays eyes on. (Leggett Theater, Peace College, through May 22)

**Quilters , Deep Dish Theater–Unfailingly earnest but theatrically inert, this survey of how 19th-century prairie women encoded life experiences into hand-stitched folk designs is more a historical review than it is a play. When its creators permit a cast of strong actors to lock onto specific scenes or situations long enough, we’re impressed by these women’s strength and occasionally amused by their cunning. Since that rarely happens, we see cameos more than characters in a cavalcade recalling hokey high-school assembly presentations of yesteryear. (Through May 21)

E-mail Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.