"I'M GETTING My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" has been filling theaters and raising consciousnesses for three years -- in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

"For an off-Broadway show that opened to mixed reviews here and should have been closed if we had followed the rules, it's made us an awful lot of money," says Joseph Papp, who sponsored the original production at his Public Theater in New York. Papp attributes the show's unexpected appeal to its "good-natured" approach to women's liberation -- "after a long period of time when there was a great deal of advocacy in women's lib, and people became rather doctrinaire and sloganized and the movement became rather detached from the real relations between men and women."

Louisa Flaningam, the effusive, red-haired, Washington-bred star of the touring production that has come to Ford's Theatre from Pittsburgh, says the show's sexual debate completely transcends its two principal characters, a newly liberated pop singer and her agitated, male-chauvinist manager. After almost every performance of the show in Pittsburgh, Flaningam recalls, there were people telling her: "Oh God! Did I see myself there!" r

"People see the role-playing and the manipulation," she says. "The play deals with our instinctive manipulation of each other, which we have to realize before we can stop it." She cites a moment during rehearsal when her character had been resorting to baby-talk to cajole a man into doing her a favor. The scene ended and Flaningam went right on talking baby-talk as she asked a colleague to get her a sandwich. "You kind of catch yourself," she says, "and you realize: What is this thing that just came out of my mouth?

"When I first saw the show in New York, I thought [authors] Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford had been reading my mind! They had tapped my telephone!" she says. In one scene, Heather, the singer, and Joe, her manager, argue about strength and weakness in men and women, and which comes first. "You're tough, you can get along," he tells her, making a comparison between Heather and his wife, who would be helpless without him, he says.

"I have had that conversation in my life!" says Flaningam. "I think what Heather is certainly trying to say, is that we -- women -- can be strong without being less self-sufficient, less lovable, less feminine."

But "this isn't a pro-woman piece, not a feminist piece," she says. "It's trying to say that we should all learn to relate to each other differently." In Pittsburgh, she adds, "I could sense at the beginning of the play that the men were not with me." Later "it began to turn."

Flaningam hails originally from Bethesda, where she first became interested in ballet and came up against her parents' insistence that she take high school and college -- the University of Maryland, it turned out -- as seriously as her show-business dreams. After graduation, however, she moved to New York, with dance and choreography on her mind. To be considered for musicals, she decided to study singing, and she has been in one musical after another ever since, going wherever the work was: San Angelo, Texas; Fort Smith, Ark; Huntington, W.Va.; Jacksonville, Fla. a

Now in her mid-30s, Flaningam sang "Another Hundred People" in Stephen Sondheim's "Company" at the National Theatre and elsewhere. She worked with Alfred Drake at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House and with George Hamilton at a Florida dinner theater. She played Cleo in the Broadway (and PBS-TV) revival of "The Most Happy fella." And she replaced one of the two magician's assistants in Broadway's "The Magic Show," a duty that required her to be sawed in half every night. "You don't want to know what's really going on," she says when asked the obvious question -- how does a magician saw a woman in half? "It's really bizarre. You learn that a second is a very long time." Eventually she tried out for the touring company now at Ford's (the show is still playing in New York).

Coincidentally, her 31-year-old costar, Ralph Byers, is also a Washington-area native, a graduate of Fairfax High School and William and Mary, who studied acting in London and returned here to get a master's degree at Catholic University. Byers has worked at Olney Theatre (in "A View From the Bridge"), at Arena Stage (in "Boccaccio") and at the Kennedy Center (in "The Scarecrow"). He, too, has traveled -- to Romania with a C.U.-sponsored tour of "Ah, Wilderness," and to Los Angeles for two years of television work, doing episodes of "Kojak," "The White Shadow" and "Charlie's Angels" as well as the mini-series "Blind Ambition."

On TV, Byers says he became a specialist at playing "crooked lawyers." Producers told him, "Oh, you look like a crooked lawyer," and he answered, "Thank you very much." When he returned to New York, his slime-role reputation had apparently preceded him. It won him a villain's part on the daily soap opera "Search for Tomorrow." After seven months, the producers were so pleased by Byers' portrayal of the conniving Jim Ramsey that they told him: "Listen, we want to kill you off, but how would you like to come back as your twin brother and be a good guy?"

After mulling the offer over, he said no, preferring to hang onto the chance of working in the theater. And the latest result of that decision (after brief stints in two Broadway failures) was a last-minute summons to Washington for "I'm Getting My Act Together . . ."

As Joe, Byers plays a man locked into a destructive, incommunicative marriage. "He needs his wife's weakness to establish his strength," says Byers. "It's sick in a way, but you see it a lot." And the counterpoint to Joe's marital life is provided by his relationship with Heather. She is developing a nightclub act to break free of her career as a singer of bland pop ballads. But he wants her to go back to the old image -- to be "something soft and cuddly and meek and retiring," as Byers describes it.

Married just over a year, Byers turned down one recent offer of a job in Cincinnati so he could spend Christmas with his wife in New York. But he took the part at Ford's because, among other factors, he could stay here with his mother, and "it's a great theater town, and it's wired into New York."

Flaningam, likewise, is staying with her parents (her father is a Washington attorney who used to work for the Federal Power Commission). "I finally get to help my mother clean out the attic."