Actress Julie-Ann Elliott regularly takes on big roles in big plays at Olney Theatre Center, most recently as the lead in "Hedda Gabler" and as a principal player in "An Enemy of the People" and "The Heiress." At the moment, Elliott is playing a title character etched in lighter tones: Constance, in "The Constant Wife," W. Somerset Maugham's 1927 drawing room comedy, which runs through March 11.

A childhood spent watching old movies on the tube and grad-school acting experience in period dramas at Catholic University afforded her the skills to play "straight-up" characters -- "people who have straight spines and are grounded," Elliott says.

Afield from Olney, she has done Lady Capulet at the Folger Theatre and appeared at Rep Stage, Theater J, MetroStage, Washington Stage Guild and Baltimore's Everyman Theatre. This spring she'll join the cast of "Titus Andronicus" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The mother of 5-year-old twin boys commutes to Olney from Calvert County, clearly a modern woman, even if her characters often have their well-shod feet firmly placed in the past.

"It's a big challenge to make these characters look and sound effortless," Elliott notes in an e-mail follow-up to a brief interview at Olney. "The language is richer than how we generally speak today, the physical carriage is more stylish," she explains. Yet "a lot of the same technique for vocal and physical phrasing I have learned performing Shakespeare and Ibsen and Coward I employ when I do contemporary shows," she adds.

The language in "The Constant Wife" has been a test of her skills. Maugham's dialogue can be "very convoluted. He's got some witty lines," Elliott says, "but they roll around" before coming to the point -- very un-Noel Cowardy. The actress shifts to a plummy British lilt and breathes out her character's run-on sentence about wives and marriage:

"Let us face it. She is no more than the mistress of the man whose desire she has taken advantage of to insist on a legal ceremony that will prevent him from discarding her when his desire has ceased."

Whew.

Constance, the pampered mate of a wealthy doctor, asserts her rights after learning of her husband's infidelity. She gets a job so she can be financially independent and goes off on a romantic vacation with an admirer.

"There's nothing vengeful about her choices," Elliott says. She reacts to her husband's affair "in a very rational, fair, caring way . . . she manages to equalize their relationship without taking revenge." Wealth can trap a wife, Elliott argues. "There are certain things that you owe your husband if you're a woman of leisure . . . if desire goes, then it goes, but there [is] still sort of a contract."

Elliott finds Constance to be "amazingly intelligent" and enjoys taking on a character who "has so much wit and charm . . . unlike Hedda, where you have to go out there and not care about playing someone who is awful."

Junebug's Journey Author Alice Mead taught art in the inner-city schools of New Haven, Conn., in the mid-1970s. It was, she recalls, "a chaotic, dangerous environment" that made going to school "an act of heroism" for kids. Out of that experience Mead created Junebug, the bighearted 9-year-old hero of her three-book series for young people. The middle novel, "Junebug and the Reverend," has been adapted as a play for ages 6 and older and is running at Imagination Stage through March 25.

Mead met a little boy named Junebug when she taught in New Haven. "He wasn't at all like the person in the play . . . but he was a kind, gentle, kind of very sweet kid." His mother died and the foster care system separated him and his beloved baby sister. "I wanted to dedicate something to a little kid like that," says Mead, who now lives in Maine and has written on behalf of children in Bosnia, Sudan and elsewhere.

Junebug has difficulties in his life, but also spirit and a love of fun. His father is in prison and his mom has taken a job managing a group home for seniors. The position comes with an apartment, so the family has left the projects to live there. Junebug must adapt to a new neighborhood, a new school and lots of old people. He must decide whether to befriend the nerdy bully-magnet in his class, whether to face down those bullies and whether to obey his mom and accompany a crotchety retired minister on morning walks. Junebug would rather spend time learning about boats and sailing with a kindly boatyard manager he hopes will become a father figure to him.

"His father is missing and I guess the turning point is when he realizes he's not coming back," Mead says. The story has to do with "trying things you don't want to do and trying things you do want to do and underneath it all is a search for a father. I think our entire society is in search for a father, otherwise why do we watch Doctor Phil?"

Playwright Martha King De Silva ("Stretch Marks"), who adapted the book for Imagination Stage, likes the fact that none of the characters "is perfect. They are all people who make mistakes." Junebug, she observes, is "a complicated, very human boy who is not a goody-goody, who tries to do the right thing, but is also conflicted about it."

De Silva's recollection of her own childhood is "rosier" than the "complicated" life that many kids experience today. Audiences may find it hard "to watch stories that don't depict childhood as a magical period," she adds. "That can make people uncomfortable. The nice thing about the 'Junebug' story is that it is triumph over adversity, and the adversity is not insignificant."

Follow Spots

· Spooky Moves: Spooky Action Theater company, which has performed at Flashpoint downtown, will take up residence at Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus March through September. Its shows will include "Holy Ghost" (March 8-April 1) by Romulus Linney and "The Lathe of Heaven" (May 31-June 24), a science-fiction play by Ursula Le Guin, plus a week of Suzan-Lori Parks's "365 Days/365 Plays" (Sept. 10-16) and workshops with the college. Visit http://www.spookyaction.org.

· The Helen Hayes Awards has garnered a mention in the Catalogue for Philanthropy's list of well-run small nonprofits in the Washington area. Visit http://www.catalogueforphilanthropy.org/dc/2006/index.html and look under "2006-07 Charities."