If Washington theatergoers see Julia Roberts's new romantic comedy, "Runaway Bride," they may recognize her sex-obsessed grandmother. That genteel, birdlike biddy is veteran Washington actor Jean Schertler.

Schertler, 75, appeared most recently in Washington Stage Guild's production of Graham Greene's "The Potting Shed" and Pirandello's "It's the Truth (If You Think It Is)." Over the past 40 years, she's appeared in everything from "The Front Page" to "Uncle Vanya" to a dinner theater production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"--as Big Mama. "I liked it because [the late Washington Post theater critic] Richard Coe liked me," she said during a recent phone interview.

It was 1956 when the Minnesota-bred actress, new to Washington, walked into Arena and asked, "How do I get in around here?" Soon she was onstage with Robert Prosky and company. The oldest of her six kids baby-sat for the youngest while she performed. Her husband, Leon, now retired, worked for the federal government.

After Schertler did a turn on "Homicide" a couple of years ago, the show's casting director, Pat Moran, snagged her the role of a Virgin Mary-obsessed granny in John Waters's Baltimore farce "Pecker." When "Bride" came to film in Maryland, Moran thought of Schertler.

"They didn't really know what the character was going to be," the actress said. She got lines originally written for the character of Roberts's mother, who was cut from the script. Schertler has the PG film's one off-color line, about being afraid of the "one-eyed snake" on her wedding night. "That defined the character," she said.

Does she think late-blooming fame awaits? "I probably ought to get an agent to answer the phone calls," she mused.

A Couple of Angels

For Rick Hammerly and Craig Wallace, this has been a season of artistic risks and challenges. The actors have major roles in Signature Theatre's production of "Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika," which runs through Aug. 22--Hammerly as the suffering AIDS patient, Prior Walter, who's visited by an angel, and Wallace as his friend, nurse and sometime drag queen, Belize.

Each has used "Angels" as a departure from what he's best known for. Hammerly's usually pegged as a comic actor, working in a dress as a Hollywood dame in Source's "Red Scare on Sunset" or the aging Bette Davis in "Me and Jezebel" at MetroStage. Wallace is familiar to Shakespeare Theatre audiences as a bald, macho, military man in the history plays. Both 34-year-old actors also had their first nude scenes this past season. And both survived.

For Wallace, a year away from the Shakespeare Theatre was a useful stretch. At Olney he was the desperate husband in "A Raisin in the Sun," and a doomed innocent in Woolly Mammoth's "The Last Orbit of Billy Mars." In addition to the sex and nude scenes, "every night I had to walk to my death completely open and vulnerable," he said.

Then came Belize. "I come from a very matriarchal family, so doing Belize and getting in touch with that feminine side was actually kind of fun," said Wallace by phone. "He's the ultimate friend, and he's also a little bit of a mouthpiece for ["Angels" playwright] Tony Kushner. But that's okay, because Tony gives the characters incredible lines." And lots of them. "Perestroika" runs about 3 1/2 hours. Said Wallace, "The stamina that I worked out from being at Shakespeare [Theatre] helped me."

Hammerly grew up 10 minutes from Signature Theatre in Arlington. He's staying at his parents' house during the "Angels" run--a nice visit, since he now lives in New York. He did a variety of roles here and in Kansas City and Virginia, and earned a Helen Hayes nomination for "Jezebel." He hit New York in 1997, where a good review for "Message to Michael" at Theatre Off Park jump-started his career.

"I got a great write-up in the New York Times and then the phone started ringing" for more off-Broadway work, he said. Still, Hammerly keeps hold of his job waiting tables in the East Village.

"I've validated that I can do more than just turn in a funny line. I really needed that. I was actually surprised at some of the things I found in myself that I was able to lend to this," he said.

After "Angels," Wallace goes right to his Arena Stage debut in Paula Vogel's "Hot 'n' Throbbing," opening Sept. 3. But Hammerly will head to Las Vegas: "I'm going straight to the Liberace Museum!"

Follow Spots

* A production of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" by the relatively new Longacre Lea Productions will run Aug. 11-29 at Catholic University's Callan Theater. Call 202-316-1659.

* The Essential Theatre Company, a budding troupe founded "to provide an artistic haven for local artists of color," will perform Miguel Pinero's prize-winning prison drama, "Short Eyes," Thursday through Aug. 29 at the Cecile Goldman Theater in the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Call 703-218-6500.

* Olney Theatre Center inaugurates its experimental space tonight, with a preview of the Potomac Theatre Project's edgy, often political repertoire for late summer. "Stanley" by Pam Gems, about British artist Stanley Spencer, and "Havel: The Passion of Thought," an evening of plays by Vaclav Havel, the Czech president and former dissident playwright, will run at Olney's new Mulitz Gudelsky Theatre Lab through Aug. 29 for free. Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca" will play on the Olney main stage, Aug. 24-Sept. 26. Call 301-924-3400.

* Interact Theatre Company Artistic Director Catherine Flye and frequent leading man Tim Brierley--Britishers both--will perform "As Others See Us," an evening of humor directed at their countrymen tonight at 7:30 in Arena Stage's Old Vat Theater. It's pay-what-you-can. Call 703-760-9863.

* Source Theatre Company has found a new publicist in time to beat the drum for its upcoming season, which opens Sept. 11 with David Mamet's "Edmond." Delia Taylor, the Washington actor who won raves in "Metamorphosis" at Washington Shakespeare Company and directed WSC's all-female "Taming of the Shrew," will take the part-time PR post at Source in mid-August. She helped run both the Consenting Adults and Actors' Theatre of Washington companies. Audiences for Source's Washington Theatre Festival of new plays have grown to frequent full houses following a slow start. The festival continues tonight through Saturday with the raucous 10-minute play competition. Call 202-462-1073 for info, 1-800-494-8497 for tickets.