SEPTEMBER TAROT or PEQUENOS ANIMALS ABATIDOS, by Aleiandro Sieveking; English translation by Hugo Medrano and Rebecca Read directed by Frederic Lee; scenery by Hugo Medrano; costumes by Julia Cruz; lighting by Gary Floyd; with James Ferrer, Lenor Chavez, Maria McCormick, Hugo Medrano, Frank Sherman, Felisa Kazen and Erik Murray.

At the Gala Hispanic Theatre (alternating in Spanish and English) through Aug. 9.

The theater is surprising. You can be suffering through the stiffest production of the most ponderous play when, out of nowhere, the clouds part and a blast of sunshine breaks through. Usually it takes a few minutes to get the old eyes open and fully appreciate the change in the weather. Sometimes you have to hurry, lest the clouds return before you realize they were gone.

In the case of "september Tarot," by expatriate Chilean playwright Alejandro Sieveking and now playing at Gala Hispanic Theatre, the transformation occurs midway through the opening scene, when Maria McCormick enters in the role of Pelusa, a rich, 40-ish lady who lives in Santiago and professes to be a witch. It is a demanding moment for a witch -- September 1973, a few days before the coup that will unseat Salvador Allende and his elected Marxist government. There are more j visions in Pelusa's head right now than you can shake a broomstick at, and she has an unfortunate habit of telling people the truth, even if it means telling them about very dire things to come.

once she told a woman that her absent husband would never return -- and the woman committed suicide. But it was not the prediction that caused the suicide, Pelusa points out; it was the fact that he would not return, which she merely divined.

This Pelusa is a salty witch, too, rather like Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." And McCormick is rather like a Latin version of Tammy Grimes playing Madame Arcati, as she pooh-poohs most of the traditional tomfoolery of seers -- crystal balls and so forth -- and seems grievously insulted when someone suggests that she could tell fortunes on TV. g

Unfortunately, "September Tarot" has an ambitious structure that often leaves Pelusa out of the picture. The shifting focus of the play includes Pelusa's architect grandfather and socialite grandmother, who appear in visions; Felipe and Nancy, two young leftist actors staying in Aelusa's house; and Willy, an American of undefinably villainous intentions.

None of these people is particularly believable or pleasant. But one character stands out for sheer insufferable long-windedness. Felipe, awkwardly (and unenviably) played by James Ferrer, has all the trademarks of being an autobiographical construct of the author's. He is an artist. He has a tendecy to preach at us. And he tells us his dreams. (On the whole, I don't think the theater would suffer if playwrights were simply forbidden to have characters tell us their dreams. Plays, after all, are dreams)

The author of "September Tarbot" left Chile soon after Allende's removable, to set up shop in Costa Rica where, among other things, he wrote this play. It premiered in Lima, Peru, in 1975 (directed, incidentally, by Alonso Alegria, the author of "Crossing Niagara," which the Folger Theatre produced here last fall). But for a work written in exile and in the wake of such traumatic events, "September Tarot" seems unusually oblique, not to say tame, in its social and political commentary.

Perhaps something has been lost in the translation from Spanish to English. In any case, non-Chileans may have difficulty seeing whatever light this author meant to shed on the condition of his country.

The production, directed by the ubiquitous Frederic Lee, is distinguished by Julio Cruz's stunning costumes -- particularly the various white togs and roles worn by Pelusa's aristoratic forebears. Except for McCormick and her character, however, nothing about the play or the performance seems worthy of such grand attire.