Irish director Vincent Dowling finds paradise in the farmlands of Minnesota, the little towns of New England, the Far West. What he loves about this country is its space, its miles of unsullied countryside -- and its regional theater. ("It's the best-kept secret outside Fort Knox," he says.)

To spend 10 minutes with Dowling is to encounter a whole new America -- an optimistic, romantic place filled with riveting highways and byways that city folks tend to overlook. A year he spent at a small private college in Ohio, for example, was "near to Heaven on earth"; a winter touring Missouri in a Winnebago was "just a magic time."

The big cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Washington -- are okay too. But for Dowling they somehow don't have the same allure. It took a special occasion to bring him to Washington: the premiere American performances of the Abbey Theatre's three-month cross-country tour of John Millington Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," which opens at the Kennedy Center next Thursday before it heads to Dowling's beloved heartlands. To Scottsdale. Cedar Falls. Chattanooga. Kansas City. "I love Kansas City," he says.

Despite his affection for out-of-the-way America, this tour will be a grueling one, with 15 cities and six one-night stands. "Washington is the sweetener for the troupe," he admits, "both the city, and the Kennedy Center's connection to the late president.

"Nowhere was so clearly moved by the life and death of John F. Kennedy as Ireland. We needed heroes, and we made him a hero, and most of us of that generation still feel the pain. So the very name of JFK has a resonance or pride and sense of possibility."

Dowling, 60, who directed "Playboy" (and who has performed the title role many times and directed it all over the world), has been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1976. He and his Irish-born, California-bred wife, Olwen, live in a house they built in a remote part of western Massachusetts, 45 minutes from the nearest town. ("I can only get one TV station -- and that badly," he says.)

Despite his defection to this country, he has retained his ties to Ireland -- and to the internationally acclaimed Abbey Theatre, where he spent 23 years, played more than 100 leading roles, and where, from 1987 to 1989, he was artistic director. "The past 20 years have seen a wonderful rebirth of doing dangerous and good plays there," he says. "Playwrighting in Ireland is very good now."

When he left, he was dubbed a lifetime associate director with particular responsibility for the company's current visit -- its first tour of America in 55 years.

He is delighted with the idea of shepherding the Abbey troupe around the country. For one thing, he loves to tour. "At home you're a husband or a provider or a father or a brother or a son," he says. "But when you're on tour, an actor is only an actor. The whole day is about getting your body and mind ready for that night."

For another, he is intrigued with introducing Americans to a quintessentially Irish production (the Abbey is Ireland's national theater) of what has been described as the greatest play to come out of Ireland in the 20th century.

Now considered a classic, Synge's "Playboy" was a shocker when it was first performed at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1907. An Irish tale of patricide and passion, the path from boyhood to manhood, initially it offended the turn-of-the-century audience in ways that today's obscenity-and-the-arts crowd can only imagine. The opening-night performance was greeted by riots. When the play was staged in the United States soon afterward, the cast was jailed in Philadelphia. In Boston and Chicago, there were threats of banning it altogether -- a reaction that Dowling thinks must have flabbergasted the playwright.

"I don't think Synge thought it was going to cause that kind of outrage -- and it shouldn't have. It was a misreading of it," he says. "I think he was trying to capture the extraordinary dichotomy he found in Irish life -- the mixture of beauty, love and gentleness living side by side with violence.

"And today, aren't we living with those same pulls to beauty and to violence?" he asks. "It's a perfect vehicle."

It is that mirroring of the passions inherent in life that Dowling hopes audiences across America will respond to.

Because getting culture out to real people is what's important to him -- more important, in fact, than playing to the tonier audiences and critics in big cities on the East or West coasts. "Living in New York or Washington or London or Dublin doesn't make you more entitled to the best in art," he says. "New York is extremely well served. I don't want to go there. If you take a play to New York and the man there loves it, that's great. But if he doesn't love it, for any reason, not only is New York destroyed, but so is your entire tour. Whereas if you go around the country, you're serving the people who really want the contact with you."

In his years in this country, Dowling has lived and worked, as an actor (he has performed a one-man show at the White House for three state dinners), director and teacher, in more places than have most Americans -- places like the Sun Valley Centre for the Arts and Humanities in Idaho, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, the Indiana Repertory Theater in Indianapolis, the University of Missouri at Kansas City. As a result he knows the burgeoning American regional theater better than many theater buffs, and in conversation frequently points out its achievements.

"It's the greatest movement ever in the English language theater -- a staggering movement," he says. "I'm a bit of an evangelist about it. I always tell people in Ireland that 10 of the theaters are always at least as good as the best there is in Ireland and England, and 30 or 40 of them are often as good."

In retrospect, it's no surprise that Dowling is infatuated with the regional theater. American acting has been a lifelong passion -- one he thinks may have started when he watched western movies when he was a child. "That's why I wanted to be an actor -- to be in westerns," he says.

The American approach to acting also inspired him at the Abbey in the '50s, when as a young actor he was part of a group that was dissatisfied with what it saw then as the company's "closed-shop siege mentality." For clues to a less rigid acting style, the actors looked across the Atlantic.

"We recognized that the best acting we could get in touch with was taking place in the movies," he recalls. "That Brando was a great actor. That Kazan was creating excitement. The kind of truth you got from that kind of acting was a huge influence on us."

It led to the Abbey mounting American plays like Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in the mid-'50s and to Dowling's eventual love affair with this country. He started visiting America regularly in 1971. By then he was married to Olwen (he has two daughters from an earlier marriage), and in 1976 their enthusiasm led them to take an 18-month trip in a VW bug all over the country -- acting, directing and teaching. He decided he wanted to live here, and asked the Abbey, where he had worked for more than two decades, if he could split each year between Ireland and America -- and was told no. In a can-do leap of faith, he decided to come anyway. The only commitment he had lined up was directing a new play in Providence, R.I.

"I quake at the risk I took," he says.

During that first engagement, he was contacted by a friend who asked if he'd be interested in having his name put up for artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival outside Cleveland. He stayed there for three years and, except for his recent stint as artistic director of the Abbey, has used this country as his home base ever since.

Dowling's affection and appreciation for America's style of truth-in-acting is obviously genuine. But a listener can't help noticing that even after all these years of trouping around the United States, the cadences of Ireland have not been erased completely. And quotes from Yeats (one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre) and many lesser-known Irish poets (as well as Shakespeare) still jump to his lips with a speed and frequency that few American actors or directors could match.

Who would expect it to be any other way?

And by now it doesn't matter. At this point he is an American.

"I never missed Ireland when I came here," he says. "I used to as a young actor when I went to England. But the last time I flew back to America, as I came over Long Island, for the first time ever, I found myself saying, 'We're home.' "