An English actress, transformed by Washington

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Hannah Yelland stars in Shakespeare Theatre's "The Winter's Tale."

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In a town possessed of more than its fair share of residents with impressive credentials, Hannah Yelland manages to stand out. Yes, Washington is home to ambassadors and generals and Cabinet secretaries galore. Lots of locals can be introduced to one another as “the honorable . . . ” But how many walk into a room or sit down to a dinner as “the Tony-nominated actress”?

That’s where Yelland, a native of Britain and a homeowner in Georgetown, has something of a social trump card, even if few of her neighbors are aware that the Broadway actress lives among them. The wife of a Harvard-trained lawyer from New York with his own mouthful of a title — general counsel to the minority staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — she earned a Tony nod for best actress in 2011. The recognition was for her performance as a love-starved housewife in “Brief Encounter,” a much- admired, U.K.-minted, song-and-movement version of the 1945 Noel Coward film.

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And now, finally, Yelland, a graduate of Cambridge University who has worked extensively in English theater and television, is making her debut in her adoptive American hometown, in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new “The Winter’s Tale.” She is Hermione, the queen wrongly accused of adultery by her jealous husband, Leontes, in director Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s production, which runs for the next five weeks in the Lansburgh Theatre.

Taichman’s take is notable for both the size and makeup of the cast. A mere nine actors — including Brent Carver, Mark Harelik, Nancy Robinette and Ted van Griethuysen — double and triple up in parts to tell the story of Leontes’s grieving kingdom of Sicilia, and of its lighter-hearted counterpart, the Bohemia of King Polixenes. It’s also an intriguing venture because of the hiring of the 36-year-old Yelland, who, having fallen in love with the city since arriving three years ago, wondered whether she would ever get to work in it.

“I wanted to work here sooner,” she says, over a soy latte and plate of scrambled eggs and at a popular eatery on M Street. “I didn’t know if people completely knew if I was going to stick around.”

Few places seem to accommodate short-team leases as handily as Washington, where the professional classes ebb and flow as regularly as the Potomac’s tides. Actors are by no means immune to the prevailing cycles: Peruse any theater program from a couple of years ago, and you’ll notice shifts in the active rosters since then: performers who have moved to New York or Los Angeles, designers who have segued to teaching or even law school.

But Yelland is here now, and she’s eager for parts. She and her husband, Michael Bahar, whom she met at a wedding in Scotland, are fixing up the Georgetown house they bought 15 months ago, after residing in Bahar’s Dupont Circle apartment. (He proposed in spring 2009, and they married in August 2010.) And after a 2012 in which Bahar, a Navy judge advocate general, spent several months on duty in Afghanistan, and Yelland appeared in a new play in Dublin, their 2013 is shaping up as a bit more domestic. She says she’s enjoying the simple pleasures others grumble about, such as taking a bus to her job.

“I said to my husband, ‘Can we just stand still for a while? Can we just be?,’ ” says the actress who, halfway through the conversation, confides that she’s smuggled to the meal her other adored household companion. Henry, a Havanese named after King Henry VIII, is stretched out silently in the dog carrier under her feet.

Yelland had the full life of a journeyman actress in and around London before moving to the States: She played Kate Nickleby, opposite her father, veteran British stage actor David Yelland, in a West End revival of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” and toured her native land in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” in which her mother was played by none other than Twiggy. (“She still looks beautiful,” Yelland says.) Her casting in “Brief Encounter” by Cornwall’s innovative Kneehigh Theatre, which went to Broadway after an acclaimed run at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, considerably raised her American profile. But not to the luxurious point of pick-and-choose.

More convenient home bases exist than D.C. for an actress in her prime, as Yelland discovered after “Brief Encounter” ended in early 2011. “That was the hardest time,” she recalls of the frequent departures from the District for auditions. “I was traveling up to New York two times a week for 10-minute sessions. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ”

Which is partly why, when her agent told her there was interest in her for Taichman’s “The Winter’s Tale,” a co-production with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, she dearly wanted to play Hermione. She was at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, appearing in an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel “My Cousin Rachel,” so she had to tape her audition. “And it was a really bad audition,” she says. “I was nervous because I so desperately wanted the job.”

She didn’t get it. Then, in December, as her Dublin stay was ending, “they came back again.” The word was that her initial audition lacked the emotional depth for the harrowing losses and accusations Hermione must endure: “They said it was still Noel Coward.” Believing the role was “meant for me,” she went to the costume staff at the Gate. “I said, ‘Can you find me a shift sort of thing and put some blood and dirt on it?’ I learned the lines completely and put them on tape. Next day, I got the offer.”

Hermione is one of Shakespeare’s most mysterious and beguiling women. Found to be chaste by none other than the oracle at Delphi, Hermione collapses at her trial and is declared dead. She is not to be seen for another 16 years, when her friend Paulina reveals her as a living statue to the repentant Leontes.

Yelland says that Shakespeare’s embrace of magic is reflected in Taichman’s production, in the way it uses theater’s transformative properties. “It’s a very magical reveal — jaw-dropping,” she says of Hermione’s return to life. “It’s also about the magical nature of forgiveness, the magic that occurs when Hermione makes the choice to come back into the world.”

The metaphor has resonance for Yelland’s American adventure. As she notes, “The Winter’s Tale” not only marks the first production she has appeared in that was developed in this country, it is also her first professional Shakespeare. That an English stage actress came here for her first transformation into a character by her nation’s most celebrated playwright carries its own improbable magic.

The Winter’s Tale

by William Shakespeare, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Through June 23 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Go to www.shakespearetheatre.
org
or call 202-547-1122.

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