So, like, why is Halo Wines directing?

Why is one of the quintessential Washington actors -- whose re{acute}sume{acute} of roles over the course of nearly four decades is probably longer than any other in town, and whose many portrayals, especially the comic ones, remain etched in theatergoers' memories -- now telling other actors what to do?

Halo Wines, acting. Acting, Halo Wines. The two seem pretty much synonymous. And yet there she is -- at the helm of Olney Theatre's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy "The Rivals," which opens this weekend.

Okay, she took a spin in the director's chair last season, when she brought in Olney's production of Moliere's "Tartuffe," to great critical and popular acclaim. Lots of actors will give it a shot. But they usually do it earlier in their careers. Wines is 61, and here she comes with another big production of a challenging work. Could this possibly signal a serious new, ah, direction?

"I dunno," she says with a big laugh. "Given the way I've behaved in rehearsal when I've acted, some might say I've always been trying to direct."

Oh, so she's a real pain to work with -- the director tells her to play it one way, and she does it another?

Not at all, says former Arena Stage artistic director Zelda Fichandler. She directed Wines in numerous productions during the more than 20 years when the actress and her husband, the late Richard Bauer, were members of Arena's resident company.

"She was a joy to work with," recalls Fichandler, who adds that she's not at all surprised that Wines is moving into directing. "In fact, I'd say it's as if all she's done has led her to this."

Engaging in Wordplay "The Rivals" is a sparkling sendup of 18th-century English manners that's full of comedy, both high and low. Based heavily on the notorious early life of its author -- whose scandalous exploits captivated the inquiring minds of the period -- the story brims with wit and sentiment and some good-natured satire. It also features the inimitable Mrs. Malaprop, whose uncanny ability to use the wrong word in the most ridiculous way ("Yes, he is very like an allegory on the banks of the Nile") added "malapropism" to the English dictionary.

"The Rivals" can be a little too literate or literary for some people's tastes, not to mention that even some of its most brilliant dialogue is repetitive at times. "It's possibly the hardest of Sheridan's plays to do," says Fichandler.

Wines admits her task isn't easy. The biggest challenge, she says, "is getting inside the play, penetrating and enlivening the language, which is lovely, but it does go on in parts." The trick is "finding life in the lines and letting it happen and having it coalesce into something."

First, she says, a little editing takes care of most of the repetition. Second, but more to the point, "the people in it are very available to us, even if the manners in it are so different. Their feelings" -- be they love, pride, jealousy or insecurity -- "are very recognizable." Ditto, she adds, for their actions -- defending their honor, playing jokes on each other or disguising themselves, the last of which she loves. "People just making up to be somebody else!" she says, laughing hard. "It's like, 'Oooooh, I wish I could do that!' There's an iconoclastic spirit in the play that we can relate to" -- one that clearly speaks to her in a revealing way.

Wines says she often fantasizes about being an iconoclast but could never really be one. "It's true, I don't like rules. I'd like to be a rule-breaker, but I think about breaking them more than I do."

She has always had strong passions, even as a kid growing up and going to public schools around here (her parents, who worked for the federal government, moved up from Daytona Beach, Fla., less than a year after their only child was born).

Young Halo liked reading aloud, and often did in class. She also developed a strong interest in the theater while still in junior high school. "My mother took me to plays," she says. "We went to Arena a lot when it first opened."

After she graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School (Fichandler's alma mater, too), Wines and her parents discussed her enrolling in a university drama program. "But we thought it best that I go to a liberal-arts school that also does plays. And that's what I did. There was no theater or drama major at Gettysburg [Pa.] College, but they often did plays, and I was in them."

She pursued, and got, a degree in psychology, but not before having spent the summer between her junior and senior years -- 1960 -- working at Olney Theatre. "That was when I got my first introduction to Olney and to Catholic University because many of the people here were associated with Catholic. Many professors directed here, and some grads acted here."

The experience led to her next firm decision: attending Catholic University for graduate school in acting.

At Catholic she met Bauer, who was also in the program, and fell in love. They acted together in three touring productions. "We got married in the middle of the third one," Wines recalls. The year was 1965. "We honeymooned on the tour with everyone else."

Unlike many young artists who devote themselves solely to their art, Wines and Bauer also began to raise a family. (Their daughter, Libby, now lives in Kensington; their son, Christopher, is an actor playing a lead role in "The Rivals.") In between changing diapers, Wines and Bauer both worked at a short-lived rep theater at St. Albans School in the District. Two of their colleagues were also Catholic University grads, Chris and Susan Sarandon.

She says one of the most enjoyable shows she ever did was Elaine May's "Not Enough Rope," which she did with Bauer at St. Albans. "That was fun -- so much!"

Bauer joined the Arena company. Wines followed a short while later and almost immediately began distinguishing herself in a variety of plays. Many of those shows share a common element with "The Rivals," though of course the thought never occurred to her at the time.

Thinking Through a Role An iconoclast by definition is a rebel, particularly against established wisdom or beliefs. But the stones he throws are largely intellectual: words that pelt, in his mind, dusty old ideas. More than anything else, an iconoclast thinks.

Ask Wines one of the standard questions you ask any actor -- what have been some of your favorite roles? -- and something interesting happens. "Oh, I hate that question," she says, laughing again, but this time with a trace of seriousness. She pauses, then begins to answer.

"Certainly there's Jesse in ' 'night, Mother,' " -- Marsha Norman's play about a woman who, instead of trying to find a way to change her unhappy and unfulfilling life, calmly and matter-of-factly chooses suicide.

"And Lady Wishfort in 'The Way of the World,' " by William Congreve, another master lampooner of class and social manners. "I played three roles in Caryl Churchill's 'Cloud Nine.' Loved them all. Mostly because I love that play . . . which is also an iconoclastic play. Hmmm." The smile on her face widens as a light bulb seems to flash in her head. "I'm detecting a theme here," she says.

Jim Petosa, Olney's artistic director, worked several times with Bauer and Wines, both individually and together. "As actors they were as wildly different as anyone could imagine," Petosa says. "Richard was an utterly intuitive actor. You could engage his brain, but he trusted spontaneity, a gut reaction, and he had an incredible instinct for theatricality that he allowed his intelligence to inform. Whereas Halo is probably one of the most intelligent actors I've ever worked with. Her intellect is her way into her acting. Her intelligence is a liberating tool for her, and from her intelligence she forges theatricality."

Or, as Fichandler puts it, "Halo would dig a door into the character. Richard leapt into it."

Offstage, Wines is known for, among other things, being smart, strong-willed, determined and outspoken. Onstage, therefore, it's not hard for her to play strong characters or show strength in some form, Fichandler says. But Wines also has depth, not to mention a willingness to approach characters in unusual ways. For example, Fichandler once directed her in a contemporary Russian play, "Duck Hunting," in which Wines had to play a fundamentally weak woman.

"She was on the edges of her most intuitive work in that play," Fichandler says. "She was in love with a rake, a real woman-chaser, and her relationship to him was very delicate, tenuous and bruised. She had to suppress all that strength of hers and bring out this fragility. She was absolutely wonderful."

Wines still leads with her mind, though, and once you couple that with her experience, directing would seem to be a logical step for her rather than an intuitive one.

"Her mind is very analytical and conceptual," Fichandler says, "and she can see the overall nature of a production. And she knows the acting process so well, which is the central thing to know as a director -- to know what the internal life of a character is and how to show it physically. She's also wise about human behavior, and she'll take risks. I think directing is something she'll really blossom into."

Wines shrugs. "I really don't find it all that different from what I've done as an actor," she says. There is only one regret -- the fact that Bauer, who died in 1999 and whose loss she still feels deeply, is not around to see her direct.

"Or be directed by me!" she quickly adds. "Even harder to contemplate, huh? Richard did a little directing in his younger days. . . . There was this approach of the actors trying to figure things out with the director, a sense that you were collaborating with the director in trying to determine what this play wants to be. And I see that as my job description now, just trying to figure this thing out."

Why is Halo Wines directing? Why not?

A fixture at Arena: Wines with her late husband, Richard Bauer, and Pamela Nyberg, far left, in 1993's "It's the Truth (If You Think It Is)" and with, from left, Randy Danson and Christina Moore in 1984's "The Three Sisters.""I really don't find it all that different from what I've done as an actor," says Wines, here with Richard Pilcher during a rehearsal of "The Rivals."The trick to directing "The Rivals," says Halo Wines, is "finding life in the lines."