"COME BACK to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," opening today at the Inner Circle, seems to achieve an astonishing rebirth in the transposition of a play from stage to screen. It is also a rebirth for Robert Altman, who has fashioned a stirring comeback, revitalizing his technique and presumably his career (discredited, as far as conventional Hollywood opinion was concerned) by persevering in an inspired salvage operation.

Attracted by an Off-Off Broadway production of Ed Graczyk's play, Altman selected it for his debut as a Broadway director and promptly suffered a flop. It appears, however, that he realized during rehearsals there were aspects to the text that probably lent themselves more expressively to the pictorial fluidity and suggestiveness of a movie. Helpfully illuminated by hindsight, the most obvious of these aspects are recurrent flashbacks, which demand frequent time-travel transitions between a theatrical present that takes place in 1975 and recollections of events that occurred 20 years earlier.

Working with several members of the original cast, Altman spent three weeks shooting a film version of the freshly roasted play in a New York studio with super-16mm camera equipment, designed to facilitate 35mm blow-ups for theatrical release without too much grainy distortion.

Bankrolled by Mark Goodson Productions and Viacom, an entertainment conglomerate eager to generate original programming for its cable subsidiary, Showtime, the film version of "Come Back" was completed for slightly less than $1 million, an enviable bargain price for a picture that stands an excellent chance of joining the classics of the theater-to-film genre.

Not that anyone is about to welcome the play itself as a modern classic. While full of aggravating echoes and subterfuges, Graczyk's material doesn't seem utterly worthless. Indeed, this triumphantly resourceful movie transcription would seem to prove that the material had plenty of amusing, touching and theatrically effective elements.

Graczyk's humorous skills seem to be fighting a losing battle for distinctive expression against a multitide of theatrical inspirations. There are particularly insistent and often unfortunate echoes from the idioms of Tennesse Williams, Carson McCullers and William Inge. At their most pronounced and misappropriated, these influences have an undeniably distorting effect, since they suggest that the characters are more haunted and compromised by the playwright's self-consciousness than by their own experiences.

A tragicomic fugue for contrasting female instruments -- a principal trio of Sandy Dennis, Karen Black and Cher is augmented by a secondary trio of Sudie Bond, Marta Heflin and Kathy Bates -- the play unfolds on a single set, representing the interior of a small, anachronistic Woolworth's in a dust-blown west Texas town called McCarthy. The day is Sept. 30, 1975, the 20th anniversary of the day James Dean was killed in a car crash. A group of old girlfriends, once high school classmates and members of a Dean fan club that met at the 5 & Dime, gathers to commemorate the dreadful event. In the course of an afternoon's reunion, we discover that their dreams, pretensions and expectations have taken a considerable drubbing from fate in the intervening years.

The store is run by Juanita (Sudie Bond), a defensively pious middle-aged widow evidently content to let the establishment remain a cluttered '50s time capsule. Thanks to Mona (Sandy Dennis), the fan club's peculiarly obsessive founder and curator, the 5 & Dime is also a shrine, richly decorated with images celebrating the cult of Dean. At first glance, this devotion appears a bit extreme, and it's revealed to be more fanatic and delusionary in Mona's case than one would dare guess. The course of her life was decisively altered by a fixation on Dean that, according to her suspect account, reached an ecstatic climax when she not only appeared as an extra in "Giant" when it was shot in nearby Marfa, Tex., but also enjoyed a night of bliss in the arms of her screen idol.

The system of deception Mona has elaborated around this neurotic girlhood infatuation provides the play with its central source of mystery and shameful self-exposure. As the facts behind Mona's guilty secrets surface, they're calculated to trigger supplementary shocking revelations about the vicissitudes of the other members of the principal trio -- Cher as the likable, buxom Sissy, who has remained stuck in McCarthy (and behind the counter of the 5 & Dime) with Mona, and Karen Black as the brooding, ambiguous Joanna, who got out of town and returns with a pip of a history to update for the old gang.

As the afternoon wears on, the remembrances pile up and the girls let their hair down in group-therapeutic earnest, the confessional motifs get a trifle redundant and competitive. Joanna is concealing a dramatically sensational secret linked organically to Mona's deceptions, so even if you anticipate the nature of the revelation, which isn't hard to guess anyway, it retains an irresistible, mischievously funny impact. Sissy's big secret seems to be Overdoing Things, and it's a tribute to Cher's performance and Altman's touch that this melancholy refrain plays as well as it does.

The methods of character exploration and revelation in "Come Back" are so hackneyed they probably shouldn't work, but the movie medium seems to have permitted Altman to establish an emotional intimacy that may have eluded him on the stage. One surmises that the difference may be especially flattering to Karen Black. She took a beating from theater critics, but watching her in the movie, you can understand that what she's doing as Joanna might depend on the intimacy of the camera to be both witty and credible.

While one can understand viewers who might recoil at equally close contact with Sandy Dennis' tics, the role of Mona seems to rationalize and even cry out for those tics like nothing else in her checkered career. Casting Cher against type, Altman gets such a warmly natural performance that you feel rather bewildered by her failure to capitalize on a wonderful screen presence.

Altman exploits the single setting with stunning pictorial resourcefulness. The lighting of cinematographer Pierre Mignot creates a semblance of real, fluctuating afternoon sunlight that survives even the 35mm blow-up. A huge mirror behind the soda counter becomes a frontier into the past, reflecting the scenes that hark back to the '50s. In fact, the illusion is so ambiguously effective that one can't be certain from flashback to flashback if those are reflected images of the performers on the set or if they're recreating the past on a set behind a transparent mirror.

While inspiring him to fresh technical innovations, "Come Back" also seems to revitalize the sense of emotional identification with lonely, self-deceiving characters and the genius for pathos that distinguished Altman at his most affecting.