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Classical but gnarly

Anthony Heald likes a challenge. Like many in-demand actors, he’s bounced around between the theater, television and the movies. On a recent hiatus from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he got a call from OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch asking what kind of role he’d like to play in a return to the festival.

“Please,” Heald remembers saying. “I would love to tackle a tough, gnarly, classical role. ‘Timon of Athens’ would be a great challenge.”

And that’s how Heald, who is probably best known to the public as Dr. Frederick Chilton in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Assistant Principal Scott Gruber in television’s “Boston Public,” came to be playing the title role in one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays, which will run July 28 through Oct. 29 in the OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre.

Heald, a Broadway veteran and Obie Award-winner who has twice been nominated for a Tony Award, is taking on a role that comes with problems. Timon doesn’t have the depth of Shakespeare’s better-known heroes, he doesn’t find redemption, and all he learns is that he has no friends.

The play has been historically unpopular, at least until recent times. There’s no sign it was even performed until a couple of centuries after Shakespeare’s death. At the start of the 2016 season, it was the least-performed play in the 37-play canon at OSF, with just three productions.

“I told Bill I’m attracted to the challenge of finding the humanity in a character who seems fairly monochromatic on the page,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons it’s on the schedule. It’s so easy to do ‘Midsummer (Night’s Dream)' every two or three years. But you gotta do some of the more gnarly plays.

“I think with Amanda Dehnert directing, it will strike many as surprisingly relevant.”

Dehnert, who teaches at Northwestern University, studied classical music before earning a degree in musical theater and turning to directing. Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout called her 2011 “Julius Caesar” at OSF “the best ‘Julius Caesar’ I’ve ever seen.” Her 2013 “My Fair Lady” featured a dancing Heald as Doolittle.

Heald says Dehnert’s direction gets actors’ creative juices flowing.

“You come up with things you didn’t know you were going to come up with,” he says.

“Timon” is the story of a nobleman in ancient Athens who gives of his wealth so generously that he goes broke and finds that his “friends” have turned their backs on him. Embittered, he becomes a misanthrope, runs off into the woods and dies hurling hatred and death wishes at his former home and its citizens.

The play is widely thought to have been written with the help of a co-author, probably Thomas Middleton, around 1606 to 1608. Heald thinks Middleton wrote most of the first half and Shakespeare most of the second half. But Heald thinks, as many scholars have concluded, that the text was put aside at some point and never completed.

“I can almost see him rushing through to get the thoughts and images down, and then (intending to) go back later and clean it up. In a lot of places it wasn’t polished.”

But Heald has found himself admiring the play. It’s full of lovely language. And interesting symmetries. The cast includes four “trios” of characters who are like-minded. It’s built around two large banquet scenes, the second of which represents a dark reversal of the first, a structure Heald calls “very schematic.”

The production’s design is high-fashion modern. Several of the male characters will be played by women actors and will be treated as men.

Is Timon a tragic hero?

“I don’t think in those terms,” Heald says. “He’s a worthy man with a flaw that brings him down. I think Shakespeare wanted a hybrid like “Winter’s Tale” and “Pericles,” and it’s also very much a satire.”

He says the play’s focus on matters of economics, particularly among the wealthy and fickle elite of Athens, is likely to resonate for contemporary audiences.

“Everybody grants that there are problems,” he says. “But the ideas and the language are extraordinary.”

Then there are the flashes of humor, for example in the way Timon’s so-called friends react when he asks them for help.

The play will run in the Bowmer while “Hamlet” runs in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Heald envisions audiences reciting the familiar lines of “Hamlet” along with the play, then sitting through “Timon,” where, because of its rarity, everything is new.

“The language alone is a huge challenge,” he says.

But then, Heald’s not one to shy away from a challenge.

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.