A Hatful of rain by Michael Gazzo; directed by Michael Murphy; scenery by Geoffrey L. Grob; costumes by Willi Garcia; lighting by Kenneth Thane Wilson; with George Voris, William de Rham, Meg McSweeney, G. Smith, Guy Mark Foster III, Charles Bucklin, Gary Alan Shelton, Robin Tucker and George Gatti.

At the Touchstone Theatre (527-0978).

From out of the dimness of the mid-1950s -- when method acting was something vaguely new and the use of drugs was something vaguely associated with jazz music and poetry -- comes Michael Gazzo's "A Hatful of Rain."

This tense tale of a junkie and the people around him made a large impression on the arbiters of what was supposed to be theatrically important in 1955. While it seems rather laborious and predictable now (even comically so when a dope pusher named "Mother" comes around in his trench coat and opaque sunglasses), its harsh emotionalism makes it a good piece for actors to train on. And in the custody of talented actors like those currently performing it at Arlington's Touchstone Theatre, "A Hatful of Rain" still has enthralling moments of gritty characterization and domestic soul-baring.

Director Michael Murphy has gone at the play, cliches and all, with commendagle respect and energy. She keeps the main pulse of the action throbbing even as the characters and subplots multiply and as the author takes documentary-style side trips into the lives of a group of junkies with whom the protagonist, Johnny Pope, has become entangled. Murphy also seems to possess the rudimentary but rare skills required of anyone who would try to manage a sizeable group of actors on a stage and persuade us that they are real people inhabiting a common universe.

William de Rham, who plays Johnny, seems to have more than a little '50s-method-acting blood in him. It isn't easy to believe in a character who spends most of his time pouting and pacing, or speaking such anguished lines as (to his wife): "It's crazy -- it's like sometimes I walk the streets at night and I'm looking for you and You're right here." But the intensity of De Rham's performance at least evokes the play's origins as an improvisational piece at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio. Gary Alan Shelton puts equal ferocity and more humanity into the character of Johnny's brother Polo (although he should explore the possibility that a line can be emphatic without necessarily being shouted). As Celia, Johnny's wife and the third party to a potential love triangle, Meg McSweeney gives an intelligent performance, but a studied and somewhat lethargic one.

The production is sponsored by the Touchstone Theatre Company, a new and (to judge from this effort) promising group, housed in small but well-arranged quarters across from the Ballston Metro station in Arlington.