Without much notice from Washington, one of the nation's most successful regional theaters has sprung up only an hour away -- in Baltimore. During its four seasons under artistic director Stan Worjewodski, the theater's subscribers have grown in number from 9,500 to 16,500. The theater has extended its pull to the Washington suburbs of Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard Counties, from which 11 percent of its subscribers now come. These successes led the Maryland state legislature to designate Center Stage as Maryland's "official state theater."

The theater has become increasingly adventurous in its productions and increasingly inspired in its execution. This has brought it not only growing praise from critics, but also growing respect from the performers, directors, and designers who circulate through America's regional theater circuit. Some of New York's noted theatrical talents have described Center Stage as one of the best regional theaters in the country and as one of their favorite places to work outside Manhattan.

The evolving quality of Center Stage productions has reached a peak in the current production of Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine." It suggests that the theater may have moved into the select company of the country's best subscription theaters: Washington's Arena Stage, Minneapolis' Tyrone Guthrie Theater and New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, to name a few. But the evidence has been accumulating for some time. Center Stage has presented the Mid-Atlantic premieres of major works such as Michael Christofer's Pulitzer-winning "The Shadow Box," David Rudkin's Obie-winning "Ashes" and David Berry's Vietnam-based "G.R. Point."

Just six years ago, however, it seemed that Center Stage might not be around at all. On Jan. 10, 1974, during its 12th season in Baltimore, Center Stage's North Avenue theater burned to the ground in the middle of the night. After stuggling through the rest of that season in make-shift quarters, the theater's board considered moving to the suburbs or just callling it quits. The 1974-75 season was cancelled altogether as the theater looked for a new home and new funding.

With support from local contributors, the Ford Foundation and city, state and federal governments, Center Stage bought and renovated an old Jesuit high school downtown for $1.7 million. The structure was gutted and rebuilt. A thrust stage faces 500 green-plush seats, none more than 35 feet away. In its layout and intimacy, it is very similar to the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage.

But only a few months after opening its new building and assuming the related debt, Center Stage faced declining subscriptions and the resignation of its artistic director, Jacques Cartier. The temporary replacement was the director of the theater's Young People's Company, Stan Wojewodski. The young, untested director from Catholic University and the Olney Theater proved a quiet success: Forsaking flamboyant projects, he began to build the theater's reputation.

Wojewodski personally directed the two best productions of the 1976-77 season -- Oliver Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer" and Mark Medoff's "When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?" He made both the former's comedy of manners and the latter's bizarre terrorism accessible. Previously declining subscriptions began to climb.

Wojewodski was appointed permanent artistic director the following season. He grew more adventurous in his play selection. His biggest risk was "Ashes," a stark tale about a British couple who are unable to bear children. Wojewodski faced some criticism for producing the controversial "Ashes" during the subscription renewal campaign, "but I wanted to understand something about the audience and their ability to go with plays we thought were important."

The risk paid off in a brilliant production and an 83 percent renewal rate -- 13 percent above the national average -- and the theater's reputation began to spread. Unable to afford a resident company, Wojewodski developed a floating company of performers including Tina Hicken, Terry O'Quinn and Robert Pastene.

The theater began to attract directors like William Devan (who had portrayed John F. Kenndy on TV and secret agents in various movies) who directed the violent, shocking Vietnam plays "G.R. Point" for the 1978-79 season. Devane called Center Stage "a fabulous facility, the best I've ever seen," while he was in Baltimore. "They've certainly done brave plays here," he said, "or else we'd never be here."

Robert Allan Ackerman directed "The Goodbye People" and Israle Horowitz's specially-commissioned adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" for Center Stage. He went on to direct "Bent" on Broadway, and last month was rehearsing a new show for Joseph Papp's Public Theater. Ackerman says that Center Stage "is beautifully equipped and mounts productions overseen with care and respect. Both of my experiences there were rewarding -- both artistically and personally -- a rare combination in a business where one's expectations are easily thwarted by poor management." i

"As the theater's reputation is more clearly established," Wojewodski says, "the easier it is to attract good actors." And easier, too, to attract audiences. Center Stage had 82 percent attendance when Wojewodski was appointed artistic director -- last year, it had 93 percent. To prevent subscribers from filling every available seat this year, the run of each play was extended from 4 1/2 weeks to 5 1/2. Even so, "Watch on the Rhine" is now playing to standing room only.

During the climb to success, Center Stage has also had its share of failures. Herb Gardener's "The Goodbye People" was better off unrevived. David Berry's "G.R. Point" relied too much on stock and not enough on revelation. Beverly Trazana's punkiness as Mother Courage negated the character's hard-won wisedom. But the Theater's failures were always interesting -- a result of flawed concepts rather than sloppy productions.

As artistic director, Wojewodski must pick a six-play season each year that will satisfy his own needs and the desires of subscribers. "A theater can present plays that attract a large number of people and entertain them," he says with a smile through his tentative beard. "Or a theater can forgo broad accessibility and concentrate of substantive esthetic and intellecutal issues. Many theater people will say that the latter kind of theater is far more difficult and worthier. But to my mind, the most difficult and ambitious goal in theater is to do both at the same time."

Wojewodski's four seasons have ranged far and wide, from Shakespeare to 18th-century comedies to Brecht to Hellman to stark, psychological tales by as yet obscure contemporary authors. Despite his pluralism, Wojewodski argues that the theater has a sharp identity. "Some people confuse eclecticism with a lack of a point of view," he claims. "A point of view comes from production values, from building a production ensemble as well as an acting ensemble. That and the ideas contained in the plays are your point of view."

A definite part of Wojewodski's pluralism is a commitment to new American plays. "Every major corporation has laboratory space to do research for its own sake," he points out, "where the one discovery in a thousand is going to speak with a clear voice. The theater has to have laboratories for research and development."

Wojewodski eventually wants to have a second stage in his present building for such play development. But unwilling to wait for a physical space, he has broken into the subscription seasons three times this year to provide week-long runs for a "First Stage" program. In the program, a director, a designer and performers work with the playwright of an unfinished script to test out possible changes in rehearsal and before a live audience.

The first script was Michael Kassin's "Sophie and Willa," which met its first live audience the first week of January. After "Watch on the Rhine" closes Feb. 17, Lance Mulcahy's adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Duenna" into a "Mozartain operetta" will be a "First Stage" presentation Feb. 19-24.