Think of Potomac Theatre Project's production of "Stanley," Pam Gems's play based on the life of British artist Stanley Spencer, as a mediocre painting terrifically exhibited. The acting, directing and design work are all far more interesting than the material. So interesting, in fact, that the show is still worth the trip to Olney, where PTP is in residence with its summer repertory of free theater.

The script purports to explore the tensions between Spencer's tightly intertwined life and art, in particular the role erotic mysticism played in each. (Yes, he was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence.) It's the kind of provocative theme that's become a Theatre Project trademark. Unfortunately, as written, it provokes only annoyance.

We're taken through some 20 years of Spencer's life, meeting various other artists, dealers and hangers-on who crossed his path. But the mainspring of the plot is the scheming of Patricia Preece (Lee Mikeska Gardner), a no-talent living with her lover, Dorothy Hepworth (Julie-Ann Elliott). Patricia intends to steal the successful Stanley (Alan Wade) away from his wife, Hilda (Helen Hedman), so that she and Dorothy can spend the rest of their days without ever having to worry about earning a living.

The problem is that Patricia's scheming, like her character, has all the subtlety of a bucket of paint poured over your head. There's nothing redeeming about her, a fact that becomes clear very quickly. She's not even entertaining, wickedly or otherwise. Stanley, however, doesn't see any of this--supposedly because he's a childlike naif who instead views Patricia as the embodiment of an erotic ideal.

Never mind that she doesn't ever give him what he wants, not even, after wrecking his marriage, on their wedding night. The main point is that childlike becomes childish very easily. You come to feel that, with the possible exception of Hilda, all of the characters get pretty much what they deserve.

PTP's theme for this summer's rep is "exploring the artist." But "Stanley's" arguments about art and artists are cliched even for their time, not to mention full of the usual self-serving platitudes (We're different, we can't be held responsible for our abominations, blah blah blah). Meanwhile, the one unsettling paradox--how people capable of creating such beauty can also bring such pain and misery to others--is all but passed over.

Given the script's limitations, it's all the more impressive that director Cheryl Faraone has crafted an evening that still has appeal. She's focused on the play's one strength--every character's desperate longing for something more in his life. Faraone makes the hole in the center of their existence palpable. Lighting designer Adam Magazine and sound designers the Chroma Group/Ron Ursano help Faraone contribute to that feeling with some intensely atmospheric effects.

As Stanley, Wade is rather remarkable: Those childlike qualities seem to emanate from him naturally, untainted by any seeming attempt to use them to make the character likable. Hedman, though stuck with the role of Martyred First Wife, still manages to get across a touching willfulness and a sense that, despite monumental effort, love cannot conquer everything.

Gardner and Elliott occasionally break out of the two dimensions of the writing. In the extremely few opportunities she has, Gardner shows a pathetic vulnerability; she also gives Patricia the kind of superior attitude that vulgar people mistake for class. The best performance may be that of Elliott, who with intelligent restraint conveys genuine feelings beneath the lesbian cliche in the writing (overemphasized by her always appearing in men's clothing, the one simplistic aspect of costume designer Debra Sivigny's otherwise sophisticated work). Elliott's acting, like the overall production, is full of wonderful nuance in a script almost devoid of it.

Stanley, by Pam Gems. Directed by Cheryl Faraone; set design, Adam Magazine. With Andrew Smith, Nicola Smith, Tyson Lien, Michael Russotto, Stephanie Janssen, Janet Stanford and Malaya Drew. At the Olney Theatre Center's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab through Aug. 29, in repertory with "Havel: The Passion of Thought." Call 301-924-3400.

CAPTION: Alan Wade as the artist Stanley Spencer and Helen Hedman as his wife in Potomac Theatre Project's free production at Olney.

CAPTION: Helen Hedman and Alan Wade as the unhappy couple in Pam Gems's "Stanley."