Ian Merrill Peakes in “Timon of Athens,” at Folger Theatre through June 11. (Teresa Wood)
Theater critic

To their sleek and strikingly conceived mounting of “Timon of Athens,” one of Shakespeare’s more curious creations, director Robert Richmond and his star, Ian Merrill Peakes, add an intriguing indicator of human frailty: Timon, one of the richest men in the city, is a germaphobe.

This could have seemed a gimmick, but it becomes more meaningful. Peakes’s Timon recoils from the embraces of the painters and merchants and poets who greet him in the initial scenes of Folger Theatre’s estimable modern-dress production — an early warning that something about this man’s relationship to his lavish world is off. “I am wealthy in my friends,” the standoffish Timon declares. Given his inability to shake hands with his supposedly beloved intimates, the notion of a man out of “touch” with the society in which he holds financial sway acquires immediate currency.

Only in the aftermath of Timon’s downfall, when the extreme generosity he has shown has led to fiscal ruin, is he able to open his arms and make physical contact with a true and loyal friend. Though Timon’s story takes him from a spirit of largesse to abject nihilism — a bitterness never completely explained by the text — his transformation is recognizably Shakespearean. Humbled, as Lear is, by the stripping away of privilege, Timon is failed by his swagger, and he’s forced to confront the stark, existential isolation that haunts us all.

Richmond, who has emerged, along with Aaron Posner, as an unofficial house director at Folger, carves a compelling path through the thicket of “Timon,” a play rarely thought of as among Shakespeare’s best and sometimes described as unfinished or at least in need of one more draft. You see the point, in the one-dimensional secondary characters, the choppy verse and the suddenness of Timon’s shift, from his position of influence and security in Athens to his self-imposed exile, during which he spews bile at the world and contemplates his own annihilation.

Folger is going to some lengths here to expose an audience with a refined appreciation for the classics — does any other U.S. city sustain, with Folger and Shakespeare Theatre Company, two such intellectually weighty Shakespeare theaters? — to works they don’t ordinarily get to see. Supporting these efforts is important to keeping viable the rigorous exploration of Shakespeare’s craft in its entirety. And when presented with this degree of thought, that support becomes even more essential.

Antoinette Robinson, foreground left, and Michael Dix Thomas, foreground right, with other cast members in “Timon of Athens.” (Teresa Wood)

The personality tics assigned here to a profligate man who flirts with bankruptcy may remind you of a figure out of our contemporary public life. But the associations here are less political than philosophical, an idea embodied in the character of Apemantus, played by a suitably caustic Eric Hissom, who emerges from recesses in Tony Cisek’s futuristic set to reinforce Timon’s darkest misgivings.

Why does Timon throw it all away? Don’t expect an answer. The plot of “Timon” is fairly straightforward: the fable of a man at two radically opposite interludes, first when he has everything, and then nothing. A slim subplot, concerning a celebrated military officer, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s Alcibiades, who is himself banished from decadent Athens, feels insubstantial and contributes to the sense of a play in a raw state. Still, Richmond helps us see the connection between Shakespeare’s world and ours, with a portrait of Athens as a city of the near-future, obsessed with money — a theme reflected in the projections by Francesca Talenti of gold coins careening across a screen like a news zipper. What’s in your wallet, it seems, is the only news you need.

The play’s single-mindedness is frustrating: You find yourself wondering what else makes this guy tick, and, clearly, that occurred to Richmond and Peakes as well. In lieu of galvanizing exposition, the director smartly adds some Dickensian flourishes to the production: Timon’s “friends,” gathering around him and brandishing forks and knives, the better to feed off his misguided philanthropy; later, after they’ve bled him, bill collectors mass at his gates, waving their paper payment demands like a flock of vultures.

It takes an actor of Peakes’s declamatory resourcefulness to keep us fully engaged. He recently added dramatic heft to Shakespeare Theatre’s presentation of Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III,” playing a wily prime minister, and over the years he has anchored with magnetism such Folger offerings as “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Measure for Measure.” His Timon is another notable achievement. He summons here all the necessary reserves of bravado and anguish. The neurotic disorders Peakes applies to the character — for good measure, he tosses in a hint of obsessive-compulsive behavior — set us up convincingly for the play’s pitiable outcome: This is a man whose long-standing private suffering has become public.

And yet, his motives and reactions remain enigmatic. Ultimately, Folger’s impressive attempt to unravel Timon’s downward spiral ensnares us all in a play’s eternal mystery.

Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Mariah Hale; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Matt Otto; projections, Francesca Talenti. With Antoinette Robinson, Louis Butelli, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, John Floyd, Andhy Mendez and Michael Dix Thomas. About two hours. Tickets: $35-$75. Through June 11 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu/theatre.