CAMBRIDGE — The Nora Theatre Company has named Lee Mikeska Gardner its new artistic director after a quarter of a century under founder Mary C. “Mimi” Huntington.
“I was immediately grabbed by the part of the mission that says, we do theater with a feminine voice that jostles minds and hearts. It sort of spoke to me,” Gardner says. “I think I have the skills to take not just the Nora but the Central Square Theater in [the direction] they want to grow.”
Gardner arrives from Washington, D.C., where she has spent her career as a director, actor, and theater administrator, including a long association with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and jobs as managing director of the Washington Shakespeare Company and Rep Stage. In June, she directed the well-reviewed world premiere of Allyson Currin's “Caesar and Dada” for the Shakespeare troupe, now called WSC Avant Bard.
She will be responsible for the Nora’s 2014-15 season but says that process is just beginning. She expects to put on three or four shows, counting collaborations with Underground Railway Theater. Both companies operate under the umbrella of the Central Square Theater. She says she hopes to direct a show as soon as the coming season, and she will act eventually as well.
Huntington’s departure was announced earlier this year. She founded the Nora with two others in 1988, and says it’s simply time to move on to other, non-theatrical pursuits, which she declined to discuss.
Leaving brings “lots of feelings,” Huntington says. “I work with wonderful people here and a wonderful theater community. Not coming into the office at some point — that makes me sad. But I will stay on the board of the Nora, though, so I will be involved in that way.”
Huntington adds, “I think this is a time where the Nora has matured to a certain level, and I think someone new coming in is also a time of opportunity for the Nora.”
Since its first production in 1987, Edna O’Brien’s “Virginia,” about Virginia Woolf, the Nora’s mission has included a strong focus on women’s voices. To underline that she’s a good fit for the job, Gardner points out that half a dozen or more of the shows she’s directed in Washington were also produced by the Nora, including “The How and the Why” by Sarah Treem, which played at Central Square last season.
In recent years she moved away from administration to earn an MFA in acting in 2012 from the Catholic University of America. “Grad school allowed me to reboot my artistry,” she says. “I came out knowing I didn’t want to be a managing director, I wanted to be an artistic director.”
Gardner will honor a previous acting commitment in the Washington area in January and February, so Huntington will remain involved with the Nora during that time. Gardner will be starring in the two-person “Souvenir” at 1st Stage in suburban Washington as the bad opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins.
Since 2008, the Nora has operated in tandem with Underground Railway at Central Square Theater. The two troupes share just about everything except their boards and artistic directors, and they collaborate on some shows, like the current production “Arabian Nights.” All three organizations were represented in selecting Gardner for the job, which attracted 50 applicants. The Nora board had the final word on the decision.
What happens at Central Square “is a very collaborative process, so choosing a new artistic director, we felt, had to be collaborative as well,” says Catherine Carr Kelly, executive director of the theater.
“Lee is the whole package in many ways,” says Kelly. “She’s an actor, a director, she’s received more than 25 nominations for the Helen Hayes [awards — the Washington eqivalent of Boston’s Elliot Norton Awards], she’s worked with over 20 new plays, she’s worked with playwrights extensively.”
Gardner won a Helen Hayes Award as an actress in 2001, for playing Mary in “A House in the Country” by Peter Coy at Charter Theatre.
In an e-mail, Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz says that Gardner directed some of the troupe’s biggest successes from 1996-2006. “She has a keen sense of psychology, and the settings for her productions have often depicted the world from inside the experience of the protagonist,” he writes. “I think she identifies especially strongly with plays by women or plays with strong female characters, so I’m especially excited that she has landed at the Nora.”
“I’m a problem solver, and I like to make things,” Gardner says. “I make plays, I make characters when I perform, I have made theater companies.”
The total budget at Central Square is about $1.9 million, with 11 full-time staff, Kelly says. It has just under 900 subscribers, but it would like to have twice as many. Growth is definitely part of Gardner’s brief, but how does an artistic director make that happen?
“I think with my sort of bird’s-eye view,” she says, “it’s, ‘These are where things are, and this is where we want to go, so let’s make that happen.’ ”
Saying yes to the dress
The feminine voice is represented in a very different way in Moonbox Productions’ “The Importance of Being Earnest,” playing through Dec. 14 at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St. Veteran Boston actor Ed Peed fulfills a longtime ambition by playing Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comedy.
Peed dates his wish to seeing the late Michael Goodson play the role in the same space 25 or more years ago: “It’s just a great role, it’s great fun and a wonderful old British tradition of male Bracknells. I think Wilde played it himself at least once.”
Peed “gives a wonderful inner life to the character,” says director Allison Choat. “She’s such a battleship, so indomitable, and yet she has a certain sense of mystery and mischief to her, even if only in glimpses. Ed embodies Bracknell’s Victorian worldview and mannerisms in a way that was really uncanny.
“Watching him swirl his skirt, or toy with his reticule, or reach for his lorgnette — from the big gestures to the small ones, Ed has really captured the movement,” Choat says.
Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at 617-933-8600 or online at www.bostontheatrescene.com.