"FOR THE FIRST TIME in my career as an actress, I had to say to myself, 'What right do I have to play this woman, to say her words?' " said Laura Giannarelli, who plays antiwar activist Mary Moylan in the Potomac Theater Project's "Trial of the Catonsville Nine" at Castle Arts Center.

"I've played nice people and lousy people, people I understood right away and people I wondered, 'How am I going to do this?' But Mary Moylan was unique. Though my sympathies lie more with the Catonsville Nine than against them, I have never engaged in this kind of passionate political work, and I kept thinking, 'How can I do her justice?'

"But Jim Petosa {the director} emphasized a way of personalizing the testimony for the actors. That's how I worked through it -- it became less me impersonating Moylan than me interpreting her powerful words. And 20 years later they're still amazingly relevant, don't you think?

"I happen to live in in Mt. Rainier, which also houses the Quixote Center, a Catholic peace organization that organizes humanitarian aid for Central and South America," Giannarelli says. "So I went downstairs to talk with them about civil disobedience -- what it's like -- and one woman there knew all of the defendants."

Where the Catonsville nine are now: the brothers Berrigan continue to protest, reconvicted in 1981 for breaking into a Pennsylvania missile assembly plant and damaging nose cones and pouring blood on official papers. Dan Berrigan, who wrote the book "Ten Commandments for the Long Haul" while in hiding and just published his autobiography "To Dwell in Peace" for Harper & Row, recently was given the Pacem in Terris Award by Georgetown University. Phillip Berrigan left the Jesuit order and married former nun Elizabeth McAllister, and was arrested a couple of weeks ago for blocking the Pentagon subway entrance.

Thomas Lewis lives in Wooster, Massachusetts; he recently was arrested for using hammers on a Seasprite helicopter and a P-3 Orion antisubmarine warfare plane at South Weymouth Naval Station. George Mische lives in Minnesota where he is a local political activist. Thomas and Marjorie Melville are professors of sociology in Northern California and have adopted two Chilean children. John Hogan is a Connecticut craftsman. David Darst, to whom the play is dedicated, died in an automobile accident before beginning his sentence. Mary Moylan went into hiding for 10 years after the verdict, served a year and a half in prison after surfacing and now is a nurse in Baltimore.

What's so funny?

Directer John Going certainly seems to know -- he directed the Olney Theater's current revival of the '40s comedy "Born Yesterday" (closes Sunday) and the very successful season-opening "Noises Off," a farce about farce that sold out most of its May run and returns for a second go-round October 20.

Going, who says his favorite comic writers range from Shaw and Molie`re (Going won this year's Helen Hayes Award for his production of "The Miser" at the Folger Theater) to Neil Simon, spoke from New York, where he is putting together a late summer tour of Simon's "Biloxi Blues."

"I remember when I first saw 'Noises Off' in New York," says Going, who has a sort of built-in chuckle to his voice. "I thought, 'This is a wonderfully funny play and I never want to do it.' Because I could see it's just too much work, you know. But as with so many things, the doing of it was not quite as frightening as the thinking about it. Directing a very physical comedy like that takes lots of patience. We did just a little bit a day and started rehearsals much earlier than usual, and as it was the first production of the season, we were able to rehearse on the set, which is an unusual luxury."

Going divulged several secrets of making funny business: "Well, first you hope the play is funny to begin with. The craft of getting people to laugh at it -- there are so many variables. It's very hard to get that first laugh -- the audience doesn't know if it's funny or what -- so you try to get it very early on.

"Preview performances help a great deal with a comedy -- you're tuned in to the audience response, and you can fine-tune a line or movement if need be. Sometimes if an actor is faced front, the audience doesn't get the joke, but for some reason you can, say, turn the actor's profile, and they scream. It's mysterious.

"For a line to get a laugh, you have to keep everything onstage still so the line can 'pop out.' You also have to have the right set-up for it -- the funny business is usually something unexpected, and the laugh often comes from the other characters' reaction to a line.

"You give a joke a week -- if you don't get it after eight performances, then you try something else."

Directing comedy successfully "depends a lot on your own slant on life," says Going, who admits to laughing easily. "But remember, usually things are funny because people are funny. People laugh at the human frailty -- they don't laugh at the mechanics."

Bulletin Board: Woolly Mammoth's second summer repertory season has proved so successful the company is extending "Savage in Limbo" through September 13. And as a finale to the annual downtown Add Arts festival September 6, the cast and crew of the show will host "Inside Savage," a free 7 p.m. demonstration about the process of putting the show together, followed by an 8:30 performance. Call 393-3939. And this just in -- Jennifer Mendenhall, the fine actress who plays Linda Rotunda in "Savage," has joined the Woolly Mammoth permanent company . . . Robin Baxter is so into her new role as a hairdresser at the "Shear Madness" unisex salon that she came home and gave her roommate, musical director Rob Bowman, a summer haircut. Baxter, who plays gumcracking Barbara De Marco in the comic murder mystery at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, isn't a complete novice at this -- during the day, she's a cosmetology student and nail technician at Robin Weir's Georgetown salon . . . Our loss is their gain: Washington actors Steve Dawn and Marty Lodge are off to American Repertory Theater in Cambridge for two years. The two were chosen from more than 600 candidates nationwide for the program . . . Maybe there was something in all that harmonic convergence stuff, after all: Catherine Wilson, new artistic director at New Playwrights' Theater, says she was planning to relocate from New York to Washington even before she was offered the job. Her husband, Eric Liebmann, is an architect with the Washington-based Weihe Partnership. "We were taking turns visiting each other on weekends," Wilson says. When the couple took their first tour of New Playwrights', Liebman immediately offered his ideas for renovating the theater's facade and lobby area. "I definitely think there was some kind of celestial interference here," joked NPT artistic director Peter Frisch. "I suspect this place is going to be looking very hot."