FOR MY FIRST SHOW, I knew I was either going to fly into the heavens or plunge into the mud," says director Joanne Gordon, whose restaging of Stephen Sondheim's massive "Sweeney Todd" was chosen to open the 17th annual American College Theater Festival at the Kennedy Center on Monday. "With 'Sweeney,' there could be no middle ground," Gordon says.

The show, performed by the students of California State University, Los Angeles, is the American directorial debut for Gordon, who left her native South Africa seven years ago as a personal protest against apartheid. An extremely articulate woman, Gordon nevertheless finds it difficult to talk about her decision to leave.

"It always sounds self-serving," Gordon says. "It's very easy for South Africans who've left, to pat themselves on the back and say, 'Look what I've done.' I kind of feel cowardly that we ran out on a situation. One feels a kind of betrayal, and a kind of ambivalence. I don't feel South African, I don't feel American. But I do feel terrifically lucky I can bring up my two daughters in America."

While in South Africa, Gordon presented plays such as Christopher Hampton's "Savages," which is about the destruction of the Brazilian Indians. "You have to be very careful there, but I felt I could make my statement that way," Gordon says. "People to the left of center understood what the play said, those to the right decided it meant, 'See, people have problems everywhere.' "

Gordon began her stage career as a child actress, then at 16 became "a very committed Zionist" and gave up "all the frivolities of theater." Now Gordon says she's realized the instructive possibilities of theater, and teaches drama at Cal State.

The director is one of two people in the U.S. to have done her doctoral dissertation on Sondheim's works. Sondheim himself read the 400-page work, "The American Musical Stops Singing and Finds Its Voice," and wrote Gordon a thoughtful and appreciative letter. The composer has been invited to the Kennedy Center opening Monday. "We're in fact hoping he'll come, but he's such a quiet, private person," says Gordon, who confesses with a laugh that she would "feel like a bobby soxer" if he were to appear.

Cal State's "Sweeney Todd" features a crew of 35, including the 23 singer/actors and a seven-piece orchestra that works largely with simplified, synthesized re-orchestrations of Sondheim's complex score. It's an odd and imposing challenge for a college theater, and Gordon says she chose it for her first American show for two reasons. First, she had a student she felt could play Sweeney, and those don't come around too often.

And Gordon was influenced by her feelings for and about her homeland. "In 'Sweeney,' (director) Hal Prince found an indictment of the Industrial Revolution," Gordon says. "Sondheim said it is a story about revenge. I see 'Sweeney' as a play about the corruption of justice, and the perversion that can occur when an individual is impotent in the face of a corrupt judicial system."

" 'Sweeney' emotionally and morally appealed to me. I felt I could make a statement, and I think I did make it." Gordon says there are no overt references to the South African situation in her staging, but the message remains, for those who wish to see. "It's more a cautionary tale. For me, it says to American audiences, 'Hey, just be careful. Don't let it happen to you.'