In the history of the theater, it's doubtful anyone's ever left a production of "Peer Gynt" saying the words "What great fun!"

"Peer Gynt" is demanding - demanding of the cast and the audience. It demands time (three hour running time), money (1991 ticket prices) and - because the play's not driven by plot but by playwright Henrik Ibsen's relentless "peering" into the soul of humanity - it requires patience and careful attention.The Pioneer Theater Company has gone the extra mile to put such heavy medicine in a spoonful of sugar. The set (designed by George Maxwell) is a wonderful, primitive conglomeration of wooden stairs, ladders and wheels all placed around a revolving stage. It looks like an elaborate tree house or the home of Swiss Family So-and-so.

Costumes (David C. Paulin) are stunning - from the "Never-never-land" look of the peasant attire to the weird and eerie outfits of the trolls and other supernatural visitors.

Lighting (Richard Winkler), direction (Charles Morey) and original music (James Prigmore) are all carefully crafted to help lighten the load.

But in the end, this is a meat-eaters play; a great theatrical stew that attempts to distill all humanity into the character of one human being: Peer Gynt.

From the opening act - where Peer is portrayed as an odd mix of town drunk, village idiot and resident storyteller - on through the dream sequences in the land of trolls, the sequences in Peer's mind and the final showdown with the devil and other unsavory characters, we feel that this is a man being studied in the lab of God. Peer's every motion and sentence is weighted with meaning.

And when coupled with Ibsen's careening imagination, it all makes for a rather dangerous piece of theater.

As Peer Gynt, Thomas Schall must be on stage throughout. It's a grueling role, but Schall plays it with buoyancy, tempered by melancholy. There's an earnest, boyish quality to his Peer. Confusion, dread and mania surface only to submerge and resurface again.

Joyce Cohen is Solveig, the "Mary Full of Grace" who eventually saves poor Peer from his own ego. Cohen is typically winning.

PTC regulars Richard Mathews, Michael Ruud and Robert Peterson have been aptly cast, and Bonnie Black shows her range by taking on the roles of Ingrid, The Woman in Green and Anitra, plus doing overtime in the Ensemble.

In the end, however, no matter how good the acting and production are, you will like or dislike "Peer Gynt" because of personal bias. If you go to the theater to learn about humanity, you'll be rewarded. If you go to lighten the burdens of your own life and give yourself some quality "down time," you'll likely have more in common with several patrons who didn't stay for Act II.