WHEN HER REHEARSAL was postponed Tuesday because the tech crew was still hanging lights, Chicago actress Susan Nussbaum seized the opportunity to slip out of the Kennedy Center for a quick visit to the museums. Her first stop: The "Buddha-like" statue of Gertrude Stein at the National Portrait Gallery. There was a purpose to the pilgrimage -- Nussbaum plays Stein in "She Always Said, Pablo," a striking performance piece ("play" doesn't quite capture the show's unique multimedia approach) at the Eisenhower Theater.

Conceived and directed by Frank Galati, an associate director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre (he recently directed the Steppenwolf Theatre's acclaimed Broadway production of "The Grapes of Wrath"), "She Always Said, Pablo" suggests the fruitfully intense relationship between revolutionary artists Pablo Picasso and Stein. A truly collaborative work created by 17 actors, six musicians and several production designers, the piece intertwines excerpts from Stein's writing, Picasso's visual imagery and music by their contemporaries Virgil Thompson and Igor Stravinsky.

Though she says she's not fond of the term, Nussbaum calls the Stein role "a good example of nontraditional casting." She's in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after being struck by a car in Chicago in 1978.

"I knew it wouldn't be easy to maintain an acting career, with the kind of discrimination that exists in this country, not just in the theater, but in every area," says Nussbaum, who also campaigns actively for the rights of disabled people. "Anyway, casting directors weren't exactly beating a path to my door."

The show goes on, however -- Nussbaum recently played Pootie in Steppenwolf's production of Craig Lucas's "Reckless," and hopes to have one of her own plays produced this fall. And in "Pablo," Nussbaum says, "the issue of my wheelchair doesn't come up, and doesn't need to come up." "

Nussbaum calls "Pablo" a "feast for the senses, unlike anything that can be described. It might be nice to know a tiny bit about the artists involved before going, but it's not necessary. All the words in the play are primarily from Stein, except for a few lines from a play Picasso wrote one time when he was suffering from painter's block. Gertrude discouraged him very heavily from becoming a writer. And from the snippet used in the play, you can see why."

"Pablo" continues through July 22. Call 467-4600.

THE FAMILY that plays together, stays together: Actress Paula Scrofano plays one of the Saltimbanques in "She Always Said, Pablo" -- that's the name Picasso gave the clowns and acrobats and harlequins that populated the paintings of his Rose Period. And Scrofano's husband, actor John Reeger, has been playing bad guy Eddie Lawrence in the Chicago company of "Shear Madness" for quite a while. So in the interest of family togetherness, the "Shear Madness" producers did some personnel shuffling and transferred Reeger into the Kennedy Center's "Shear Madness" franchise at the Theater Lab for six weeks, while Scrofano's downstairs at the Eisenhower. After their D.C. runs, the two will work together in the Cy Coleman musical "On the Twentieth Century" at Chicago's Drury Lane Oakbridge Theatre.

THERE'S ANOTHER family affair going on at the Kennedy Center. Wilbur Higginbotham, who has worked in the mailroom at the Kennedy Center forever and is now mailroom manager, got to see his son play the Opera House. Son Raymond Patterson, 34, is a "pit singer" in the "Starlight Express" company currently in town -- one of four offstage singers who watch the onstage action via closed-circuit monitor and supplement the vocals while the singers are skating. Kennedy Center chairman James Wolfensohn offered Higginbotham's family a box on opening night, and they watched the show seated right next door to President and Mrs. Bush.

"Starlight Express" continues through July 14. Call 467-4600.

A THEATER FESTIVAL opens in Adams-Morgan next week. The four-play repertory will be produced by entertainment lawyer Mark Menna and director Linda Lees, who first teamed up last year on the original staging of "Bluesman" at Source -- Levy directed it; Menna played blues guitar onstage (and quite eloquently). The festival, the first production of their Contemporary Arts Theatre Company, is a trial balloon -- after "looking at the guts of the plays," as Menna puts it, they hope to mount a season in the fall.

Menna and Lees have tapped some strong in-town talent: Paul Donnelly Jr. wrote the festival opener "Canned Fruit," about a gay couple who must reexamine their commitment after a tragic accident. Bruce Bonafede, a founder of the Playwrights Unit, contributes a play called "Advice to the Players," about two black South African actors who experience political pressures while waiting to go onstage. Theater BOBO co-founder Jeff Mace directs Mary Gail's "Planet of the Mutagens," a sci-fi play about genetic experimentation and scientific ethics. And Catholic University MFA theater grad Rodney Vance brings his trilogy of one-acts "The Closing Wood," directing one of the plays himself.

Tickets will be $10 for each play; beginning Thursday, performances are 7:30 and 9:30 Thursday at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW.

"We're learning a lot," Menna says. "I just turned my answering machine into something that takes messages."

Call 387-7486.