"The Chemistry of Change"

Through Oct. 3

Round House Theatre

Tickets: 301/933-1644

It was bad enough that Stephen F. Schmidt had to step into a leading role only eight days before the first preview. That he had to fill in for not just another actor but for Round House Theatre Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon was worse. But that he has to perform it night after night with Whiddon's fire-breathing face looming overhead -- now that's harsh.

His character, Smokey, runs a carnival ride called the Hell Hole. That's appropriate enough, since Smokey is the Devil himself. It's a delicious part, one that Whiddon was slated to play when a neck injury sidelined him. By that time, scenic designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. had already painted the set for the carnival scene, with the entrance to the Hell Hole framed by a huge blood-red portrait of Whiddon.

Enter understudy Schmidt to take on the Devil. (Pictured above, Schmidt as Smokey.) The role, however, didn't turn out to be such a stretch. Smokey is a romantic ideal of sorts -- he marries into a family where the weirdo adult children are still hanging around their gold-digging mother (Helen Hedman). He ends up transforming them all -- and himself.

"It's a part of the real me," Schmidt says. "It starts out darkly -- here's this guy with horns on. Yet he fixes this family; he's a positive influence. I love that juxtaposition."

And as far as the backdrop goes, Schmidt doesn't seem to mind at all that his boss shares the stage with him.

"I think it's great that his picture's up there. He's certainly the creator of Smokey -- I stole heavily from his take on the guy."