Actor Chris Lane has grown adept at portraying subtle variations on the saintly and the satanic in human nature.

Right now, he's leaning toward the saintly, as Vaclav Havel's alter ego in three short plays by the former dissident writer, now Czech president, as well as in the two plays that bookend them by Pinter and Beckett. His character, a political pariah in a nameless authoritarian state, listens tensely while his friends make excuses for selling out to the powers that be. "Havel: The Passion of Thought," presented by the Potomac Theatre Project at Olney Theatre Center, runs through Aug. 29, in repertory with "Stanley" by Pam Gems.

Lane, 30, grew up all over North America but went to high school in Montgomery County. He left the acting program at Carnegie Mellon University and came here to work 10 years ago, never regretting his decision. "I have friends who had gone to New York at the same time and 10 years later, they've either left the theater or just don't have a lot to show for it, whereas I've been working the whole time, and learning and learning and learning," he said last week in a telephone interview. Lane directs occasionally and runs a workshop for professional actors.

Tall and blond, with a lifeguard's physique, he made his first big impression as a "hateful, narcissistic" ex-model in "The Food Chain," a searing Nicky Silver comedy at Woolly Mammoth. In "Brimstone and Treacle," he was the Devil himself; in "Freedomland," a wacky survivalist who blew stuff up.

His first role at Olney, as Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet," earned a Helen Hayes Award nomination. Since then, he's played a rock-ribbed Anglican cleric in "Racing Demon," a gay man caring for his dying lover in "A Question of Mercy," and the mythic image of horse-ness in "Equus."

Of the last, Lane said: "I don't have any kind of formal dance background, but I really do love the sense of movement. So the idea of doing that role was really exciting. It cried out for some sort of physical vocabulary other than just 'go imitate a horse.' Whatever it was, it was a heck of a lot of fun."

As a teen doing plays for young audiences at the Kennedy Center, Lane found that he never got bored, even after 30 performances of the same thing. He'd found his bliss. "I never really believed that I was really talented at this, but it was one thing in my life that I was willing to work very hard at, and I think that's held true for me," he said. And he likes the pre-show butterflies, too. "I feel like I'm always in my best place when I have that moment of terror, saying, 'How am I going to do this?' "

Now, he can start to worry about playing Biff Loman, son of Willy, in Olney's fall show, "Death of a Salesman." After that, he can anguish about the one-man show he's working on with fellow actor Tim Carlin, based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Indelible 'Ink'

At Studio Theatre a week ago, an upstairs conference room table was piled high with books on art of the Indian subcontinent. Downstairs in the Mead Theater, Artistic Director Joy Zinoman addressed her actors and designers before the first read-through of Tom Stoppard's cross-cultural love story, "Indian Ink."

Zinoman, who lived in Malaysia for nearly 15 years, was emotional about her affinity for the work. "Indian Ink," she said, "talks about desire and creativity--the complex process by which we experience love and art."

A tale of art, literature, romance and the often blurred prism of history, it's also about the effects of colonialism on the rulers and the ruled. It begins with an English poet traveling in 1930s India. She has a brief affair with an Indian artist. The play skips between her life and a discussion among her and her lover's descendants in 1990s England.

Zinoman spent six months of auditioning Indian actors around the country to complete the casting of "Indian Ink." The Internet helped put out the word that she was doing "the Stoppard play."

Stoppard's play opened in London in 1995 but has only been produced in San Francisco on this side of the Pond, until now. "Indian Ink" starts previews at Studio on Sept. 8.

Mood Swings

The Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Theatre will open its new season with a psychological take on "Hamlet" (Oct. 30-Dec. 5), featuring multiple actors to reflect the melancholy Dane's mood swings. "Shakespeare's R & J" (Feb. 18-March 19) is based on the hit New York production, which imagined boys in a strict Catholic school putting on "Romeo and Juliet." Director Joe Carolco, who adapted and directed the play in New York, will stage it here. In the spring, the Folger will host a transatlantic troupe, the Aquila Theatre Company, and its production of "Julius Caesar" (May 9-June 4). Call 202-544-7077.

Follow Spots

* After announcing there'd be no nightclub-style tables down front while the touring production of "Cabaret" played the Warner, the producers and the theater have managed a tiny compromise. A few tables have been squeezed in between the front row and the stage. Meanwhile, in the lobbies, an exhibit of posters, clippings and photos chronicles the theater's 75-year history--from its days as the Earle (it became the Warner in 1947), with vaudeville and silent films, to its movie palace incarnation, to Cinerama days, to rock concerts and to today's multi-use theater.

* Bethesda-based Wildwood Summer Theatre completed its 35th season of musicals produced and performed by young people with the closing of "Guys and Dolls" last weekend. Founded by students from Walter Johnson High School in 1965, Wildwood had its first show directed by a teenage Jonathan Hadary, who's become an esteemed New York actor, seen here in past seasons at the Kennedy Center in the pre-Broadway revival of "Gypsy" and the tour of "Angels in America" as Roy Cohn. Said Hadary from New York: "It really was Mickey and Judy . . . No one said we couldn't, and so we sent for catalogues from companies that handle the rights to musicals . . . and then it became a matter of money." Other Wildwood alumni include director Michael Mayer and actor Matt McCoy.

* Tonight at 7:30 in Arena Stage's Old Vat Room, Interact Theatre's Catherine Flye will present her one-woman show, "Joyce!," based on the work of English comedian Joyce Grenfell. It's pay-what-you-can. Call 703-760-9863.

* Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has chosen his new demon barber for Signature Theatre's 10th anniversary revival of "Sweeney Todd" (Sept. 7-Oct. 31): Norm Lewis, who's played on Broadway in "Side Show," "Miss Saigon" and "The Who's Tommy."

CAPTION: Chris Lane, left, with James Matthew Ryan in Olney Theatre's "Havel."