As the lights went down and we took our final bows, I felt a surge of relief and, incredibly, a sense of loss. Backstage, we four -- the entire cast -- clenched in a group hug. It had gone well: The audience had applauded, the reviews had been good. But 'twas not always thus.

I played George in the Reston Community Players' production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" last spring. Ten days before opening night, panic and the sense of certain disaster had set solidly in, particularly with one of the actors -- me.

My only prior knowledge of the play had come from the movie, which, as it turned out, had about the same relationship to the original work as C.B. DeMille's film extravaganza had to the Bible. The movie was strictly a vehicle for Taylor and Burton. I was late in finding that out. I also didn't realize, from flipping through the script, that I would be offstage for only 15 minutes of the play's two hours and 45 minutes, and that I would need to memorize 104 pages of an 111-page script.

It had been more than 15 years since I last appeared on a stage, and then only for parts that lasted 10 or 15 minutes. But back in late February, opening night in April seemed so far away. So there I was auditioning, and there I would stay for countless hours during the next two months.

Community theater has changed in the almost two decades since last I trod the boards. Back then it was a cut or two above the quality expected in the senior-class play. Today's Reston Players demand the kind of professional standards you might expect at the Arena Stage.

Segue into early March. With opening night scheduled for April 8, the cast met to read through the play. When we didn't make it past two of the three acts in two hours, I began to have glimmerings of just how enormous a task learning the part would be. The director was young, sophisticated and assured. The three other actors seemed quite competent. We had pictures taken and talked about costumes, working during the first couple of weeks from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

We began to develop the scene blocking -- learning the precise place to be on stage for each line. While the other three began to work on motivation and what playwright Edward Albee really meant, and began laying the script aside for entire scenes, I was clutching it for dear life. I also began to seriously consider a move to Tulsa under an assumed name.

Around the third week in March I became convinced that these people were really serious, especially when I noticed advertising posters appearing and sets being built. Money was being spent. I began taking the bus to work to gain an extra two hours of studying time. I stopped going out of the building during lunch (more studying time). Friends began avoiding me -- I mean, who wants to read lines all the time? I taped the play at home, speaking all four parts, so I could rehearse against it. I began taking entire days of precious leave to immerse myself in the play. The script never left my side.

Our move into the theater was scheduled for Easter weekend; up till then, we had been working in various meeting rooms. That weekend also called for the first technical runthrough, when light cues would be worked out and final blocking set.

Midway through the week preceding Easter, the director called us together. "No scripts in hand starting Saturday. No prompting or calling for lines starting Sunday." He also reminded us that there would be no prompting during the actual play.

I made an appointment with my doctor. A mild gland infection needed attention, but I was secretly hoping that all this stress had my blood pressure soaring -- a convenient out for me. No such luck -- it was the best it had been in years. So much for another myth. I told him about the play -- "Some people jump out of airplanes, some climb mountains, others do this," he said.

Here we were, ten days before opening night. The set wasn't finished and we had yet to run all three acts on the same night. I proposed running the play over two days, a la Nicholas Nickleby, or perhaps providing the audience with a two-hour dinner break. Bleak stares greeted this suggestion.

The artistic director for the company came to several rehearsals. He had heard there was trouble. Backstage, I was told that perhaps someone would be replaced in the cast. "At last! My out!" I screamed mentally. But no, the decision was made. The die was cast. Work harder!

Easter Saturday rehearsals were set from 10 until midnight. Easter Sunday for 10 until death, with one hour off for dinner. The director's wife took me under her wing as a personal project, working lines, lines, lines.

We were now into the final week before opening night. Friends would ask and I would suggest that they come the second week. I thought by then the production might be closed. My wife would say "Isn't this exciting?" and "Aren't you proud?" I growled and muttered.

The Monday before the Friday opening we ran Acts I and II. I was somehow getting through, but it was still taking three hours to do two acts. The cast began to jell, although my jelling still quivered. Not up to performance standard, but enough to support each other when glitches occurred. Tuesday night we ran Act III and finished the lighting cues. The set was only half-built. Wednesday night we patched two acts together and worked on certain scenes until 2 a.m.

By now I had permanently sworn off drinking. I was also making serious promises to whatever god would listen. Thursday night we finally ran all three acts! Fantastic! "No," said the director, "we need to cut half an hour." The stage manager also noticed that we had left out one entire scene -- an important one. Depression. Tulsa never seemed so attractive. The next night we opened.

I arrived at the theater two hours early. Following makeup -- light for me, thank goodness -- we began to pace and run lines with each other. We were given a pep talk by the director. Suddenly there we were, Martha and George, waiting in the wings for the house lights to go down, and I thought "What have you done, you idiot? There's no way out of this." My legs felt paralyzed. I could remember only one line in the entire play. It was "Shhhhhh," my opening sound.

But out we went and one line followed another. We left out no scenes. We finished in two and three-quarter hours. I have never felt more relief than when taking those final bows. That is, until the awful realization struck that we would need to do this again tomorrow night.

It rained opening night -- torrentially -- and the next night. In fact, it rained for six of our seven performances. The rain fortuitously kept the reviewers away on opening night, but they came the next. One paper published the following Wednesday and although not totally damning, it was tepid. But on Thursday, The Reston Times ran a full page, a glowing review, with pictures yet. Now I understood what professionals went through.

In three weeks it was done. Seven performances, seven cast parties, lots of new friends, but mostly satisfaction. To undertake something like this after all those years, to be able to focus on it, learn the lines, actually do some acting, receive praise from friends and quite a few strangers, was fine indeed.

But what will I do for a nervous breakdown this weekend?