Inaugurating the American National Theater's policy of opening the Kennedy Center to regional theaters across the country, two prominent Chicago companies will each bring two productions to the center, beginning in June.

The series, which will showcase the work of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Wisdom Bridge Theatre, is being underwritten by the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and billed as the AT&T Performing Arts Festival at the Kennedy Center.

Announced yesterday at a press conference in Chicago, the festival was described by Peter Sellars, director of the American National Theater, as a significant step "in recognizing that New York is not the only cultural magnet in the country and that American culture is developing simultaneously on many fronts."

Two of the productions -- Wisdom Bridge's "In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison" and Steppenwolf's "Streamers" -- will be performed in the 200-seat Free Theater (formerly the Theater Lab) and offered to the public without charge. The other two -- Wisdom Bridge's "Kabuki Medea" and Steppenwolf's "Coyote Ugly" -- will play the 513-seat Terrace Theater with tickets priced at $20 and $15.

"Chicago is the most exciting theater city in the country right now," Sellars said. "And clearly, these are the two companies to start with. This suddenly allows us, as the American National Theater, to begin making a difference on the theater scene across the country, to engage in genuine reciprocity and enhance the fortunes of small theater companies, which, in many cases, might not come in for the big bucks."

AT&T estimates the basic cost of bringing the four shows to the Kennedy Center as about $350,000 to $400,000 and expects to spend a similar sum on advertising and various galas that are planned in conjunction with the festival.

"In the Belly of the Beast," based on the life and letters of writer and convicted murderer Jack Henry Abbott, will open on June 14 and run through June 29. Staged by Wisdom Bridge's artistic director, Robert Falls, it features William L. Peterson as Abbott, who was championed by Norman Mailer and released from prison until he committed another murder.

"Coyote Ugly," Lynn Siefert's drama about the return of a prodigal son to his bizarre and secretive family in the Southwest, will play from June 15 to July 6. It is directed by John Malkovich, the most widely known of Steppenwolf's 17-member acting company, largely for his performances in such films as "Places in the Heart" and "The Killing Fields" and in the Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman."

Scheduled from July 11 to Aug. 3 is "Kabuki Medea," which uses the conventions and techniques of traditional Japanese theater to retell the Greek tragedy by Euripides. The production, designed and directed by Shozo Sato, features Barbara E. Robertson as the jealous queen, who sacrifices her two sons to her desire for vengeance.

The final offering, David Rabe's "Streamers," runs from July 29 to Aug. 10. Terry Kinney, joint artistic director of Steppenwolf, is staging the drama about bloodshed in an Army barracks in the early days of the Vietnam war.

A Kennedy Center spokesman said yesterday that 75 percent of the tickets for the two free shows would be offered first to the approximately 4,000 patrons who have bought charter memberships in the American National Theater. The remainder will be distributed to the general public at a date yet to be determined.

Yesterday's announcement gives renewed credibility to the American National Theater, which suffered an ignominious debut with its premiere production, "Henry IV, Part I." That production played only three weeks of an announced six-week run and was widely criticized for its lack of adventurousness. The four productions coming from Chicago are clearly of another stripe, so violent and angry in tone that some Kennedy Center officials at the press conference expressed amazement -- and pleasure -- at AT&T's corporate sponsorship.

From the outset, Sellars has indicated that he will be depending on private and corporate money to fund his ambitious plans for the American National Theater. "AT&T's support is as significant as the work it is allowing us to showcase," he said. "I thought I was going to have to wait a year to get this kind of exchange rolling. But AT&T came along and made it happen in my first season."

In a related development, the American National Theater will also host a two-week engagement of the Suzuki Company of Toga (Japan) in the Terrace Theater from May 21 through June 2. The celebrated company, which will perform Euripides' "The Trojan Women" in Japanese, was generally acknowledged as the hit of the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles last summer.