Usually when a small theater opens for business, it is clear that the main effort has been spent on the play and not on such details as the program or the invitations for opening night. In the case of the Sanctuary Theatre, which found a home in the Calvary United Methodist Church and opened with a production of "Jesse and the Bandit Queen," the reverse is true.

A great deal of research was done for this show, an invented tale about Jesse James and Belle Starr. Members of the theater consulted a raft of experts on American history, including Walter Mondale's professor brother Clarence and his wife Virginia, a former curator of the Jesse James museum in Northfield, Minn. One of the theater's founders even traveled to Kansas on research, and an elaborate reproduction of an 1887 Police Gazette serves as a program.

It is unfortunate that more attention was not paid to the main event, which consists of two possibly talented actors floundering in a rambling text and a mundane production. Michael Frith and Gail Pearce Frye, who play James and Starr, are both attractive and not inexperienced, but they mumble, they whisper, they talk too fast. Nor do they seem to be working together very often, perhaps a symptom of inadequate rehearsal, and Frye is further hampered by a smirk she seems to have adopted as the cornerstone of her characterization.

Director Michael Oliver has expanded the original two-person cast to include songs and an assortment of other characters to sing them, but he has failed to integrate these figures into the text. There is a sense of forced gaiety about them, as though they have been directed to "be lively," but have not been given anything to do to help them express action.

The play purports to tell the sordid story of two triumphantly bad outlaws, both robbers and murderers who conceive an ill-fated passion for each other. But whatever the play's merits may be, they are not apparent in this production.