In one of the most striking moments in August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” the title character and her father’s ambitious valet, Jean, are describing their respective recurring dreams. Julie dreams she is sitting on top of a high pillar and can’t get down; she wants to be on the ground, knows she cannot rest until she is, but is too afraid to jump off. Jean, on the other hand, dreams he is lying on the floor of a dark forest at the foot of a tall tree. He wants to climb up the tree to the light and fresh air above. If he could just reach the first branch, it would be an easy scramble to the top, but the trunk is too smooth and the lowest branch just out of his reach.

This scene establishes one of the main themes of the play, which chronicles Julie’s seduction of Jean and the consequences of their tryst. Jean (Erik A. Johnson ’02) sees his affair with the aristocratic Julie (Elizabeth Newman ’02) as an opportunity to escape the confines of his class. He wavers between awed admiration of Julie’s refinement and culture and realization that in fact she is “fool’s gold.” After she sleeps with Jean, Julie is eager to carry out his schemes to run away and start a hotel in Switzerland. That is, until Jean’s face falls when she admits she has no capital of her own to start the venture. She realizes that she was to be “the first branch” in Jean’s climb of the social ladder, and he callously replies that “the branch was rotten.”

Julie realizes that she has sacrificed her honor and her family name for a man who only hoped to use her and begins to panic. She desperately attempts to reestablish her supremacy over Jean, saying “a servant is a servant.” His reply, “a whore is a whore,” is an assertion of his new equality with Julie, but it is unsatisfying for him because he has not risen to her level, only brought her down to his.

Despite all his self-improvement schemes (he has traveled, learned French, read countless novels and plays, and simply listened to rich people talk for years in an attempt to imitate them), he is still intimidated by the mere sight of Julie’s father’s “straight, proud” boots and can’t get the sound of the bell the count uses to summon him out of his head. Julie, on the other hand, wants to escape the expectations of her status as a noblewoman but still subconsciously bases her self-worth on her social position.

Newman and Johnson each give impeccable performances. The chemistry between them is perfect, making their interactions fascinating to watch. Francesca Cecil ’04, though, nearly steals the show as the sensible, God-fearing Kristine, Jean’s girlfriend and Julie’s cook. Her self-righteous speech to Jean and Julie on her way to church the morning after their affair provides much-needed comic relief from the melodrama of Jean and Julie’s dialogue. The play’s complexity requires a thoughtful interpretation of the script, and director Cecilia Morelli ’04 handles this beautifully, making this production cohesive and comprehensible without oversimplifying it.

The lighting and set were sufficient but unremarkable, and Julie and Jean’s costumes seemed appropriate to the period.

The three live musicians, who during scene changes play original music composed by mandolinist Stephen Gorbos ’03, are a very special asset to the production, especially just after Jean leads Julie into his bedroom, when they pick up their music and instruments and simply walk onstage, suddenly becoming revelers from the midsummer celebration that is the setting for the play. As Julie and Jean make love offstage, they drink and carouse, playing first a calm lullaby and then a rowdy folk song — and then seamlessly return to their seats.

This production of “Miss Julie” is almost flawlessly acted and directed, and is moving without being maudlin or overdone.