"The Freak" is a new play at the New Playwrights' Theater about the troubled early career of psychic healer Edgar Cayce. It is developed in a way similar to the stories of teacher John Thomas Scopes in "Inherit the Wind" and boxer Jack Johnson in "The Great White Hope."

In each case the besieged and sympathetic protagonist is portrayed as a man who pays a heavy price for being out of touch with his time -- amid the rigid moral, social and scientific orthodoxies of early 20th century America.

In "The Freak" the location is fundamentalist, stubbornly Confederate, Hopkinsville, Ky., in the year 1910. The young and newly married Cayce is faced with growing community pressure about his particular form of healing: visions revealed to him in self-induced hypnotic states for the diagnosis and treatment of the ill. (Cayce would eventually amass 14,256 of these before his death in 1945.) Cayce claimed no medical knowledge and dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

Hopkinsville's religious and medical circles declare: "He's not a physician. He's a freak." As illness confronts his infant child and his wife, Cayce reaches crisis.

The family doctor accuses Cayce of "lunacy" -- "gambling" his wife's life -- and Cayce becomes trapped on the horns of his own moral dilemma. Are his visions to be used as gifts to save the sick, or are they, as he says at one point, "the devil's own curse."

This drama by Granville Wyche Burgess is an arresting, literate work. The timing of Cayce's gathering ordeal is effectively paced and the doctrinal complexities of the spiritualist/literalist conflict are well defined in the dialogue. But the central problem remains: Can the action be plausible, much less persuasive, when Cayce's credibility is in doubt?

Little is done to convince the viewer who arrives with more skepticism than sentiment. Cayce is not a Scopes or a Johnson.

The only doubters who make their way into Burgess' play are villians -- outraged doctors or callous jounalists. The dubious viewer is left with no character with whom to empatize, no character with whom to emphathize, difficult title role fully in his grasp, but his assurance grows as the play develops. The same is true of Linda Hall as his wife -- she is spendid in the third act, suffering from TB. T. G. Finkbinder -- as the homeopathish who comes to Cayce's aid -- should rethink his smug, glib characterization.

The period sets are rather nice in their modest way, and John A. Morse directs the production well. The play is a bit long (almost three hours) and the ineffective epilogue should be rethought.

Still, this is just the sort of lively, controversial work that the New Playwrights' Theater serves us well by developing. It was mailed to the theater unsolicited several years ago.

"The Freak" will play Wednesday through Sunday evenings through Dec. 9.