Stage and film actors Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey will star as parents trying to put a cheerful front on their strained marriage as their son returns from World War II in the Kennedy Center's revival of Frank D. Gilroy's "The Subject Was Roses."

The 1964 Pulitzer and Tony-winning play will run Jan. 7-29. Leonard Foglia, who staged "On Golden Pond" with James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams last year (that revival went from the Kennedy Center to Broadway), will direct.

Pullman recently starred in Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" on Broadway. He has played major roles in many films, among them "Independence Day," "While You Were Sleeping" and "Sleepless in Seattle," and starred in the TV miniseries "Revelations."

Ivey won Tonys for Broadway turns in "Hurlyburly" and "Steaming." She recently directed "Steel Magnolias" at Houston's Alley Theatre. Among her films are "The Devil's Advocate" and "Compromising Positions."

The Help, and a Hindrance

"The French love stark plays about power and sexuality," says director Carey Perloff. Case in point: "Hilda" by Marie Ndiaye, about a woman insanely obsessed with her new maid. It runs at Studio Theatre through Oct. 23, after which it will go to the 59E59 Theaters in New York.

The director compares the politically charged play to Jean Genet's "The Maids." "It's all about dominance," she says. "Madame doesn't know if she wants to own Hilda or be Hilda."

Perloff staged the American premiere of "Hilda" in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater, where she is artistic director. She was fascinated by reactions from the prosperous ACT audience. "You look around the room and think, 'Do you know this play is about you?' "

"San Francisco is such a liberal town," she adds. "And yet there are rows of stunning mansions off Pacific Heights filled with women like this."

Ellen Karas reprises her ACT role as the control-addicted, love-starved Mrs. Lemarchand. Hilda herself, the object of her employer's fantasies and exploitation, never appears, though her husband and sister do.

Karas, known to Washington audiences for her many roles at Arena Stage ("Shakespeare in Hollywood" and "Expecting Isabel" among them), says the role and the play continually evolve for her. Ndiaye's script offers almost no direction. It has been up to Karas and Perloff to give the stylized dialogue life. (Erika Rundle wrote a translation that Perloff and producer Laura Pels continued to amend.)

"Some days I'm more vulnerable," Karas says. "Some days I'm fiercer and more vicious. You could do this play every day of your life and it would always be new."

Playwright and novelist Ndiaye, and the only woman other than Marguerite Duras to have a play in repertory at the Comedie-Francaise ("Papa Doit Manger/Father Has to Eat"), will join the company for the New York premiere.

"Hilda" began as a radio play. Then Pels had it staged at her Theatre de l'Atelier in Paris. "It was a very well-built play. I like that," says Pels, who produces nonprofit and commercial theater in Paris and her home base of New York. Her organization contacted Joy Zinoman at Studio Theatre to suggest a test run here before New York.

The play "has a lot to say about people, and relationships that control, and thinking that money can buy everything," Pels says.

"It talks about everything that matters to people who are a little down the ladder."

A More Modern 'Much Ado'

British director Nick Hutchison has taken a flier on updating Shakespeare. His "Much Ado About Nothing" is set just after V-E Day at a country home where U.S. airmen and their British allies and hosts mingle -- and misunderstand one another. He says he wanted to explore the "two cultures separated by a common language scenario." The production runs at the Folger Theatre Oct. 20 through Nov. 27.

The bickering lovers-to-be are an English nurse, Beatrice (played by Kate Eastwood Norris), and an American officer, Benedick (P.J. Sosko). The two apparently fell in love just before the war, but commitment-shy Benedick dallied with another and lost Beatrice's trust. When they see each other at war's end, their prickly repartee reflects both heartbreak and guilt.

Norris played Beatrice a couple of years ago at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. "I thought there was a lot more in there and I wanted to do it again, mostly because the role is straight out of my journal," she says with a laugh during a rehearsal last week. "Imagine the panic of finding the man you love. He doesn't love you back. What are you going to do with all that love?" she asks.

Sosko also appeared in "Much Ado" a few years ago and felt he could do more with Benedick. "It was such a good fit for me. I knew the guy," he says. He sees Benedick in this version as a blue-collar American.

"I think he's been very lucky and he's charming and it's gotten him through a lot of stuff," Sosko says. But Benedick "has the harder journey, because he's got to win back [Beatrice's] trust."

Hutchison says it's very important that his play takes place immediately after the war, when amid "exultation and relief . . . you don't necessarily realize that not all problems are solved."

Follow Spots

* Teatro de la Luna will open its season with a dark comedy about life and death within a family, "Justo en lo Mejor de Mi Vida" ("Just at Life's Best Moment") by Argentinean playwright Alicia Munoz. It will run Oct. 20-Nov. 12 at Arlington's Gunston Arts Center in Spanish with English surtitles. Call 703-548-3092 or visit www.teatrodelaluna.org.

* Quotidian Theatre Company will present the first full staging of playwright Horton Foote's "The Beginning of Summer," a piece he set aside some 50 years ago while busy with other plays. Jack Sbarbori will direct. It will run Oct. 21-Nov. 20 at the Writer's Center in Bethesda. Call 301-816-1023.

Judith Ivey will star in "The Subject Was Roses" at the Kennedy Center.Kate Eastwood Norris and P.J. Sosko in the Folger's updated "Much Ado."