Uncle Vanya isn't the only one sweating over debts at Intiman this summer. "Things are still tight," said managing director Laura Penn. "We've had operating deficits the last two or three years out of five. Like from $268,000 to $700,000."

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Currently, the theater has a maxed-out $900,000 line of credit at Wells Fargo and owes $150,000 in back rent to Seattle Center. The theater, Penn says, intends to eliminate its borrowing debt and operating deficit by March 2009. Drumming up grants and donations is the organization's most significant financial weakness. "Otherwise," she said, "we're similar to the rest of the pack."

(To characterize an era: In 2001, Intiman raised $2 million in gifts; in 2005, $2.5 million. In 2001, the Rep raised $2.9 million in gifts; in 2005, an impressive $3.9 million. In 2001, ACT raised only $1.5 million in gifts; in 2004, $1.7 million. The box-office figures for the three theaters in 2004/2005: $2.3 million for Intiman and the Rep, and $2.5 million for ACT.)

Those are referred to as Seattle's big three theaters, but Intiman better fits the profile of a midsize theater, with a budget between 5 and 6 million dollars. (ACT is between 4 and 5 million; Seattle Rep is almost 10 million.) "We're no longer small enough to be agile," Penn said. "We've got five labor unions, we've got a building, we're an institution, but we're not a top-tier organization that's a flagship, sitting on a big endowment."

With a 2006 Tony Award for best regional theater and Bartlett Sher, a 2005 Tony-winning artistic director, Intiman's strategy is to scratch its way up to the next level instead of retrenching back. But, in a cost-saving measure, Sher is directing four of this season's six productions (or four out of five, if you exclude Black Nativity, the Christmas pageant Jacqueline Moscou has been directing since Jesus was a kid).

In response to the ongoing cash crisis, Intiman has added muscle to its board. "We're at 42 members now, close to our maximum capacity," Penn said. "Eighteen months ago we were at 32, and we have half a dozen companies represented on our board that we didn't have a few years ago."

Penn says the theater is also working on "brand deepening" with the American Cycle, "one of our key strategies." The American Cycle is a play a year adapted from the Big Works of American fiction: The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son, and, this fall, To Kill a Mockingbird. Intiman also just won a $4,000 grant from 4Culture to produce Sherman Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing.

Chekhov, like Intiman, was preoccupied with money and its effects. As he wrote to his friend, the millionaire Alexey Suvorin: "When you live on cash, you understand the limits of the world around which you navigate each day. Credit leads into a desert with invisible boundaries."

brendan@thestranger.com