"Stanley" and "Havel: The Passion of Thought"

Through Aug. 29

Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center Tickets: 301/924-3400

When the small-budget alternative company Potomac Theatre Project chose "Stanley" as one of the plays for its free annual festival at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, director Cheryl Faraone rose to the challenge. "Stanley" explores the life of the brilliant but eccentric painter Stanley Spencer, who divorces his soulmate, Hilda, when he becomes obsessed with a social-climbing lesbian painter, Patricia Preece. Most of the action takes place in a small English town during the 1920s and '30s. Faraone relished the daunting task of producing a play this complicated, with multiple set and costume changes, in her minimal aesthetic. "To me, theater is much more exciting if you see how it works in front of you," Faraone says. "To create a whole universe out of a few chairs and a few rugs is more interesting than having it all done out for you." (Pictured above, far left, is Alan Wade as Stanley with members of the company.)

Still, Faraone hankered for a few key items. Last December she saw "Holiday Memories" at Olney and spied an old-fashioned black pram. "I called up the production manager and said `Don't let it out of your sight until the summer because I'm going to need it for `Stanley!' " she says, laughing at the recollection. Another essential prop, a life-like baby doll, was shipped overnight by an actor's mother from Wisconsin during rehearsal. Since PTP has a minuscule budget of $1,500 for props, sets and costumes, most items came on loan from Olney, the University of Maryland or Middlebury College, where Faraone teaches.

When the three-week rehearsal period began, Faraone says the actors used more props on stage. She has been paring down with every performance, seeing how much less the actors can work with. Just the other day she cut the use of a cookie tin she had brought from home. "If I had another week," she says dreamily. "I could probably get out more."