In the capital’s most acclaimed theatrical production of the season, Lucian Pintilie has set “The Wild Duck” free.

Ibsen’s play is often considered as musty and cramped as the lives of its characters. But Pintilie, the Romanian director whose “Tartuffe” shook up Minneapolis and Washington, placed “The Wild Duck” on a spectacular set (at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater) and infused it with passion and biting comedy.

Not only was it a triumph for Pintilie, but it was also a reminder that 36-year-old Arena Stage remains Washington’s foremost theater, despite the ambitions of Peter Sellars at the fledgling American National Theater.

In truth, Pintilie’s staging might well have been hatched in Sellars’ shop. By the standards of conventional productions, it’s a wild “Duck.” Yet it never flies far from the playwright’s intentions.


Foremost among those intentions was Ibsen’s determination to knock down the uncompromising idealist whom he had uplifted in “An Enemy of the People.” Charles Marowitz did the same thing when he turned “People” upside down at Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre a couple of years ago.

However, Ibsen beat Marowitz to the punch by about a century--his Gregers Werle, in “Duck,” is such a fanatic that the breakup of a formerly happy family and the suicide of a young girl are not enough to deter him from his self-appointed rounds as truth-teller.

Pintilie’s Gregers (Christopher McCann) is dressed in a suit that’s too small and a sneer that’s too big; he’s every inch the embittered prig rather than the well-intentioned realist.

The sinister aspect of his quest is also evoked in Pintilie’s most riveting image: a giant searchlight that scans the stage during the most critical moments of revelation. Ostensibly part of the equipment in the photographic studio where most of the action takes place, this light occasionally revolves on its own initiative--as if to indicate the inhuman force that’s been set in motion by Gregers’ big mouth.


The rest of the principal set, designed by Radu Boruzescu, is redemptively humane, despite its enormous scale. The studio doubles as the home of the Ekdal family, and--like a contemporary artist’s loft--it looks like a marvelous place for the childish fantasies of little Hedvig and her father. Sliding doors roll up to reveal rooms within rooms, and ladders climb walls to hidden alcoves.

Best of all, a long staircase--40 or 50 steps--climbs the back of the stage, leading to the menagerie kept in the attic. Eggs--or other bird droppings--sometimes fall onto the floor below.

It’s a set that helps illustrate the worth of the family bond that’s about to be sundered. Yet Pintilie doesn’t allow us to become unduly attached to the fun and games that take place there. Someone has to clean up those bird droppings and run the photography business. That someone is Gina (Tana Hicken), the prematurely gray mother of the family, whose past is the skeleton in the closet that Gregers reveals.

Furthermore, as the play continues, we see how pathetically deluded Papa Hjalmar (Richard Bauer) is. Bauer, an extravagantly physical actor with a mussed-up red mane, is ideal for the role of a man who’s described as a sentimental romantic with a seductive voice.


He knows exactly how to turn that voice into a sob and then a whine. In the process, he mercilessly establishes the extent to which Hjalmar has contributed to his own misery. Pintilie’s vision of this play is remarkably unsparing.

The other characters are equally on target here--the pitiful Hedvig (Rebecca Ellens), the formidable Haakon Werle (Richard Dix), the crumpled-up Old Ekdal (Mark Hammer) and Dr. Relling (Stanley Anderson), counterpoint to Gregers.

In a departure from the script, Gregers and Relling actually come to blows in the last scene. Finally, in David Westerfer’s translation, Relling drowns out the still-defiant Gregers with a chorus of taunts. It’s the final indication that Pintilie has stripped away every shred of gentility and reached the core of Ibsen’s complex play.