Mo Perry acted through junior high and high school while growing up in Eden Prairie and pursued a theater degree at the University of Kansas. But by the time she graduated, she was fed up with theater.

"I swore off it at 22," she said. "I thought it was so masturbatory, and self-indulgent and absurd."

Presumably, Perry has no designs on a career in the diplomatic corps.

"Theater can be so insular that you forget you're supposed to be saying something about the world," she continued. "But you're in this echo chamber away from the world, in the theater. I had to get into the real world."

So Perry ran off to save the world, spending four months working for the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. Her immune system, however, broke down and Perry was sent back stateside with a serious thyroid problem. Still eager for human experience, she became a tour guide in California, picking up international tourists in San Francisco and guiding them on a three-week loop, camping in the Golden State.

"Those were my crazy lost 20s," she said.

The worldly experience did her good. Perry eventually wandered home and reacquainted herself with theater. Since 2006, she has etched a series of indelible stage portraits and become one of the best working actors on the small-theater scene. She picks up the thread this week, playing Sonya in "Uncle Vanya," at Gremlin Theatre, where her portrayal of "Hedda Gabler" in 2009 gave a rare, penetrating psychological insight into Ibsen's heroine. From that sublime extreme, she has gleefully plunged into the ridiculous, such as her work as Georgette in Torch Theater's "Mary Tyler Moore" production.

Torch also was where Perry showed her heart, in "Dancing at Lughnasa." Most recently, she played a sheepdog in Children's Theatre Company's "Babe." No matter what the role, Perry never skimps on the work.

"Georgette took a level of skill that 'Hedda' didn't approach," she pointed out. "You're taking an iconic character that everyone knows from television and you have to imitate but do your own thing."

Stacia Rice, who worked with Perry as actor and Torch producer, said Perry "fuels the energy in a scene."

Perry said she appreciated Rice's confidence that Perry could play the oldest sister in "Lughnasa" -- to a point.

"I didn't feel I was old enough to play that role, but she said you 'have to have faith,'" Perry, who was 28 at the time, recalled with a touch of self-deprecating humor. "Being told that yes, you can play a 40-year-old is the opposite of what you want to hear."

Happy collaborators

"Uncle Vanya" reunites Perry with Craig Johnson, who has directed her three times, including in "Hedda." Johnson plays the title character here and also adapted Chekhov's script. Perry's Sonya is the closest thing to a soulmate for Vanya, and they both prop up the old family estate while gripping existence with determined endurance. Chekhov -- like Ibsen -- can sound dreary on paper, but his dramas are transparent metaphors of a universal quest for survival.

"The stories and characters are so good, I can't resist," Perry said.

Johnson met Perry when she auditioned for "Ghosts" at Theatre in the Round.

"She made you sit up and say, 'Who's that?'" Johnson said.

It was during that production that the two talked about doing "Hedda" and pitched the idea to Gremlin's Peter Hansen. The process for "Vanya" was similar, except that this time Johnson would be onstage. Janice Stone, a longtime associate of Johnson's, is directing.

Johnson said it's "much more fun" being onstage with Perry, even though he has enjoyed directing her. "We don't need to talk very much because we're in tune with these characters and each other. I see her as a kindred spirit."

Perry refuses to be too impressed with her success. She has a day job in human resources at the University of Minnesota ("that's where I get my health insurance") and she recently bought a house in Columbia Heights. An avid Facebooker, her wry observations mix in with regular reports on how her garden is growing and what she's making for dinner. Some of the food talk finds its way into a blog she writes for City Pages.

She has a great time onstage and would love to get more involved at CTC ("a dream come true"). This summer, she will break her cardinal rule and take on another theater project. The warm months are usually reserved for rest and relaxation.

But if this is what she wants to do right now, and she's content with it? We're content.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299