At the heart of every drama or comedy is a story. Storyteller Jay O'Callahan knows this, and in his one-man show at the Round House Theatre, he shapes his fascinating yarns into first-rate theater.

O'Callahan's new program, "Village Heroes," consists of five stories, most of which hold a cluster of interior stories, like Russian nest dolls. The storyteller's point in "Heroes" seems to be that every man and woman's quirky life is an interesting story, deserving to be told.

O'Callahan tells of growing up in Brookline, Mass., where he heard the most interesting stories at the village barbershop; then in his later travels, he says, collecting tales in Africa and other countries, he found the essence of the village the same wherever he went--the village barber still held people in thrall with his stories of personalities past and present.

With his merry blue eyes often crossing or popping above his salt-and-pepper beard, O'Callahan, in a white shirt and suspenders (he even works his suspenders into a story), works with an economy of language and movement on a subtly lit, spartan stage of raw planking. With his lightning-quick characterizations and near-manic energy, O'Callahan shows what comic Robin Williams could do if he told extended stories.

O'Callahan waits for complete silence before beginning each tale, until the audience has almost stopped breathing, a technique he perhaps perfected while working before audiences of children.

"If you sneeze before the story, it means the story is going to be absolutely true," O'Callahan says, introducing "Ha'ry Ja'nos," his version of the Hungarian comic folk tale that inspired Zoltan Kodaly's opera. It's the story of a village fool who amuses the townspeople with a tall tale of how he stared down Napoleon and almost became the emperor of the world.

The evening's centerpiece is a long, spellbinding tale called "The Lighthouse Man." Set near the Ohio River during the Depression, the story is about an industrious 14-year-old lighthouse keeper with "a smile like the crack of an apple." Although the story involves so many byzantine twists of plot and substories, O'Callahan produces a mix of drama and humor that Mark Twain would be proud to sign his name to. O'Callahan adds poetic detail to the telling of the heavily populated story of "Edna Robinson," which was commissioned by the town of Harvard, Mass., to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

O'Callahan works with the classic elements of the story: his characters are granted three wishes, they achieve superhuman feats in the context of daily life, dreams are important. Like a good novelist, he weaves in fine detail and adds occasional ribald or knowing touches that keep the whole thing from becoming too precious.

And like the best storytellers, O'Callahan finds a way to weave in commonplaces and truths, such as "some people, when they're worried about money, they find a friend, or take a drink, or go to sleep." O'Callahan also finds a way to weave into each tale a message about the importance of storytelling itself, subtly cautioning his listeners not to turn into machines, losing the art of storytelling to television and its offspring.

VILLAGE HEROES. By Jay O'Callahan. Directed by Richard McElvain. Set design, Douglas A. Cummings; lighting, Richard H. Young. At the Round House Theatre through Sept. 18.