Deborah Kerr is seated in her dressing room at the Kennedy Center. The place has the look of a small, efficient, Best Western motel room. Against the pale anonhmity she has placed a few personal touches - a ("Tea and Sympathy"), a picture of her baby grandson, freshly cut roses. On a table in front of her makeup mirror squat her prized companions - half a dozen miniature owls, each delicately carved and painted.

"I love owls," she says, nestling one in her small palm."I have so many I've had to chuck some. There's a lady in London who does them for me.' She studies her hand. "Now this fellow here, he's very sullen and sulky and a little frightened. Poor dears." This is said with a kind of porcelain gentleness.

She laughs lightly, at herself. "It's absurd what one will lug around in an old theater trunk."

Deborah Kerr is 56, shortly to be 57. She is an exceptionally handsome and preserved 56, with a strong, firm handshake and large blue-green eyes launching their own conversation. Today she is in ironed jeans, a cowboy vest, an open-collared sport shirt crisply starched. She doesn't look particularly "genteel." Her reddish hair, full and healthy-looking, is tied behind her head with a black ribbon. The clear lacquered nails gleam.

So do the loafers with the gold buckles. She seems not so much a famous middle-aged actress as somebody's very with-it mom.

Deborah Kerr once told an interviewer she looked "rather like a beautiful Jersey cow: I have the same pathetic droop to the corners of my eyes."

"Oh, that sounds like one of my insane remarks," she answers. "It depends on how I feel, I suppose. Today I look rather like a horse."

She volunteers she's a little frightened - like her owl. "Look at my palms," she says, turning them up, a slight, fetching stutter in ther Scottish accent. "Wet. And you think that's something, you should see me before a performance. Shocking, I never know if I can do it. But I guess it's not meant to be otherwise. Is it?'

She considers this a moment, one index finger closing a circle with her thumb. "You know, I get in these awful moods. 'This is the last time I'm going through this agony,' I tell myself. But down deep I know it's rubbish and I'll propbably be in this business till I drop."

The nerve-racking performance in Deborah Kerr's life these days is her starring role in the revival of "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney," now in a six-week run at the Eisenhower Theater. The play, by Frederick Londsdale, is a romantic suspense comedy about jewel thieves in the bedrooms and drawing rooms of the English upper classes, time 1925.

Kerr plays Mrs. Cheyney, one of the thieves. The plays's wit is very sharp, she says. "Truly perfidous Albeean, with a knife between the 3rd and 4th rib. The dialog we use must be precisely delivered - or not at all, fourth rib." The dialogue must be precisely delivered - or not at all.

"Of course, comedy is always harder to play than tragedy anyway. In tragedy you can take your time sobbing or something, but in comedy it's all timing. And split-second timing."

A split-second later, she adds: "Oh, how I wish a smashing play for a woman would come along. Maybe Tennessee Williams will bring one off. He's the last one to write really marvelous plays for women. 'Glass Menagerie,' for instance. The trouble today is the good playwrights aren't writing, and the ones who are aren't writing for women."

She moves from the makeup table to the sofa. Above her head now, on a bureau, is a spray of flowers in a brown wicker basket. There is a sudden interruption - a delivery boy looking for the stage is at the door. "Oh, come right through here, this is quicker," she instructs, ushering the fellow in, bothered not a slight.

She crosses her legs. One lightly freckled hand takes up a spot under the opposite arm. Both proper and gutsy.

"Let's see . . . if you were trying to name an actress you didn't personally know but whom you thought of as a 'gutsy woman," you would think of . . . Betty Bacall? Perhaps. But in fact, underneath, she is a woman sensitive and vulnerable in the extreme. Not exactly qualities you would think of in connection with gutsy. So much of this is just images."

Deborah Kerr'a public image, going back three decades, almost to the moment she first set foot from England in Louis B. Mayer's Hollywood, is of a high-minded, white-golved, long-suffering, slightly-fragile and finely-chiseled English lady. A duchess."Damn it, I am NOT a dowager empress," she said once. But the picture sticks. Even Laurence Olivier supposedly called her "unreasonably chaste." Never mind Karen Holmes, the alcololic nymphomaniac she played in the film version of "From Here to Eternity," making love to Burt Lancaster while the surf of Hawaii crashed around her. The world still wants to think of her as Mrs. Anna in "The King and I."

Never mind either that any of her friends could tell you she'd take beer and a roast beef sandwich over champagne and caviar any old day. "Actually, I adore beer," she says. "Though I must watch it for the calories."

The duchess image persists peculiarly in America, she thinks. It's because "America is virtually a classless society. Americans think if you're English you must of necessity be genteel, straight-laced, a little bit prim. But there's a difference between gentility and gentleness. I do think I exude a kind of gentleness that appeals to audiences. At least that's what my husband says when he's asked."

Her hand comes up; her nouth purses. She has takan a character. "I'm not go gentell that I can only have tea in a porcelain cup." She sounds like a wobbly matron from Sussex.

Kerr's own background is hardly privileged. She is from Helensburgh, Scotland, the daughter of a man who was wounded in World War I. "Gassed," she says, italicizing the word. "In the Dardanelles. Poor darling. My memories of him are of this very crippled semi-invalid. He died when I was 14. Mother had to go to work very early." At school, she says, they called her "Farthering Face."

"I guess it was because my face was droll and moonish." She stops. She looks sad. He voice is soft. "A farthing's gone now. Can you imagein? No more those lovely little coins."

Talents out, no matter the soil, and Deborah Kerr won a scholarship to Sadler's Wells Ballet School in London. Then she did Shakespeare Walkon parts in Regent Park. Her room at the YWCA cost $10 a week. One day her agent took her to lunch at the Mayfair Hotel where she met the famed cinema director, Gabriel Pascal. After the war, Pascal traded her to Hollywood for $250,000. Clark Gable and a film called "The Hucksters" were waiting. So was America.

"I only saw a smattering of what I call the old, old Hollywood. Oh, the luxury of it all. It was like this enormous private club. There were limousines and special dressing rooms. You were constantly being carted around. But in another way it was like going to a new boarding school. On the first day you were taken to see the new headmaster. Who was Mr. L. B. Mayer."

All during the war Hollywood had been making Esther Williams movies, she says. "You know, movies for 'our boys on the front.' I came over here to act, but before I knew it I'd bogged down in lady-like type-casting."

Eventually she wrangled her release from MGM. The came "Eternity." She appeared on Broadway in "Tea and Sympathy," went back to Hollywood for "The King and I," "Separate Tables," "Night of the Iguana," "The Sundowners," one of her favorite roles. But she says "Affair to Remember" (not "The King and I," interestingly) is the movie most people remember her for.

"For awhile, seven or eight years ago, they were showing it on the telly but three times a week. So many people would stop me on the street and say, "I know. I know. Um. Um. Um.'"

"Heaven Knows Mr. Allison," in which she played opposite Robert Mitchum, is another favorite. She portrayed a nun stranded on a South Pacific island with a U.S. Marine. "I tried saying all the lines with an English accent. It was impossible. So I made Sr. Angela Irish. Only the Irish can talk about God in that marvelous, completely believable way."

Altogether, Kerr has been nominated for six Academy Awards; she has never won.

In 1960, after a divorce from FAF hero Anthony Bartley (two daughters), Kerr married Peter Viertel, author and scriptwriter. They have made their home for years in Klosters, Switzerland, in a bowl of mountains, and in a sea-level villa in Spain. There she paints and gardens. "I like to fiddle around in oils. And anything you put in the ground will grew. I just throw it all together." No, she doesn't miss Scotland that much. "I think it's the English countryside I feel inside me on occasion. I've learned to put down roots wherever I've plonked down."

Her husband arrived in Washington a few days ago. He plots his own plans to coincide with her tours.Her current show will take her across the country, endling in March in San Francisco. "Generally," she says, "Peter can pinch a studio from friends."

It's a frenetic life, but she can't seem to do without it. "Maybe it's guilt. I think when you've worked all your life, when work is simply a pattern . . ." She doesn't finish. Then, almost mystified: "I seem to have been so busy the last four or five years. Life is so busy."

She can hardly afford to slow down, in fact.Movie people are never as rich as you think. Then, too, there is that unfortunate business of ego. Appaluse is a narcotic.

"I'm a big noise in Spanish-speaking countries, you know," she says suddenly. That sounds boastful. "Oh, they're so movie-mad over there anyway."

"Really? Still? Oh, my."

"Really? Still? Oh, my."