WHERE HAS "Miss Lulu Bett" been all our lives?

While digging around in America's theatrical attic for plays about women's concerns, Horizons Theater came upon this obscure little gem, blew the dust off and found it unclouded by the years.

At once sentimental and sharply satirical, Zona Gale's drawing-room comedy about the uncertain emancipation of lonely Miss Lulu makes for a very funny evening, without scanting the play's proto-feminist underpinning.

This three-act stage adaptation of her best- selling novel brought Gale the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (sandwiched between O'Neill's awards for "Beyond the Horizon" and "Anna Christie").

Dwight Deacon's small-town middle-class home is his castle, a doll's house in which he keeps his two cheeky daughters and his pampered house pet of a wife in a permanent state of infantilism. But it's the 1920s, women are starting to speak up, and just under the surface of Dwight's picture-perfect family, the tremors are being felt.

Living in the home of her sister's husband, treated as little more than a drab drudge by the family, spinster aunt Lulu Bett cooks and cleans and coddles uncomplainingly, but then, as an unmarried woman, she has few other options. When Dwight's mysterious brother Ninian arrives and takes a shine to her, Lulu, long resigned and unambitious, gets a glimpse of herself as a worthy woman -- and sees in this man a chance for escape, however uncertain.

Within Lulu's emancipation proclamation, Gale skillfully mines the humor in the extended nuclear family, in which everyone is aware of everyone else's comings and goings. All the women in this politely combative family have a deliciously wicked wit, from sharp- tongued matriarch Mama Bett to Dwight's bratty daughter Monona.

Leslie Jacobson's playful direction coaxes the humor and meaning from even the most antiquated expressions. The lively performances are just slightly exaggerated, suggesting 1920s attitudes without mockery, and the acting holds up under the merciless scrutiny of the in-the-round staging in Horizons' cozy space.

Carole Myers is a lulu of a Lulu, awakening visibly to assertiveness from mousy servility. Nick Olcott's Dwight is a fatuous boob, both amusing and maddening. Gay Hammerman seems a mite young for Mrs. Bett, but her deadpan lines are authentic stingers. And as Monona, Maureen Burke neatly manages the trick of playing a young girl without appearing foolish.

Gale originally wrote an unresolved closing scene, one that would be considered quite contemporary today. But the romantic audiences of the '20s disapproved, so Gale quickly wrote another, more patently upbeat ending. The play became a hit and took the Pulitzer.

The Horizons company has chosen to present both endings, a decision that provides an insight into the playwright's creative process and leaves it to you to decide which is the real "happy ending."

MISS LULU BETT -- At Horizons Theater (Grace Episcopal Church, 1041 Wisconsin Ave. NW) through November 24.