It may be that Heather McDonald is a prize-winning playwright today because she got really sick right after college and spent six months in bed and another six recuperating. The illness "gave me this time apart from my life in the world," she recalled from her Arlington home last week. During that time, she started creating "these very bad plays." Then she studied playwriting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and got better at it.

McDonald seems always to deal with that blurred line where the intellectual and spiritual bleed into each other. She is the author of the Helen Hayes Award-winning play "Dream of a Common Language," about female artists constrained within the French impressionist movement; "Faulkner's Bicycle," about a chance encounter with the great Southern writer; and "An Almost Holy Picture," about a minister whose faith is tested by loss of his child, which ran at Round House in 1996.

The last won the prestigious Kesselring Prize last month from the National Arts Club in New York. McDonald received $10,000 and a staged reading of excerpts from her other unfinished works, including "When Grace Comes In," about a woman who walks out on her family. "Holy Picture" should soon have an off-Broadway run, with David Morse starring and Michael Mayer ("Side Man") directing.

"I'm very interested in how people in limited circumstances find ways to thrive; and . . . increasingly interested in how people go on after bewildering losses," McDonald said.

The spiritual elements in her work began to form during her picaresque upbringing as a Canadian navy brat. "When I was about 12 or 13, my parents had a spiritual conversion. . . . They did have a completely transformative experience that I couldn't really get with. It changed their lives and subsequently changed mine," she said. She minored in theology at Florida State University.

She based the cleric in "An Almost Holy Picture" on her dad. Her parents didn't lose a child, but McDonald's younger sister had bone cancer, which she survived. "It's not strictly autobiographical, but it's emotionally autobiographical," McDonald said. Her parents saw "Holy Picture" at Round House. "I was really nervous about that one," she recalled. "I think it was pretty raw at the same time. It was emotionally pretty close to the bone, I think."

McDonald will direct a new version of her early play "Available Light" at Signature Theatre in the spring. The "play with music"--not a musical--is based on an incident in rural France in the 1830s: A teenage boy murdered his family and later wrote a prison memoir. It is "kind of a dark, expressionistic play," said McDonald, and it will have an original background score composed by David Maddox.

Recently separated after 16 years of marriage, the 40-year-old writer has no plans to move to New York or anywhere else. "I'm pretty dug in," she said of her life here. "I like feeling part of the community; that's really nice, if you do theater."

An Actress Takes Wing

Eight years of competitive gymnastics and life as one of nine kids in a "wacky Italian-Irish family" were good preparation for flying around the Darling nursery and fighting pirates in Neverland, according to Carolyn Pasquantonio. She's playing the boy who won't grow up in "Peter Pan" at Olney Theatre Center through Dec. 30.

The acting bug bit early, too, for a middle child seeking a bit of limelight. "My first shows were in our living room," Pasquantonio said last week, "and I would direct and star in them, of course."

Two years ago she was Wendy in another Olney production of J.M. Barrie's classic play. This time, Artistic Director Jim Petosa placed her in the long tradition of women who've plucked the plum role of Peter.

The New York-based actress, a Catholic University drama grad, has lent her petite frame, pixie visage and piquant voice to diverse roles at Olney--Shakespeare's Juliet, Mozart's bride in "Amadeus," Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," a singer of sad songs in "Jacques Brel." At Round House, she played Anne Frank; at Studio, a college girl in "The Last Night of Ballyhoo."

For "Peter Pan," she and Petosa worried about showing why an abandoned boy decides to avoid any more heartache. "Peter lives solely in the present," she explained. "What Barrie is implying is that the key to growing up is the experience of pain and suffering. So Peter cuts himself off from any intimacy or responsibility."

Pasquantonio, who's 5 feet 1 and 30 years old, finds the flying harness, similar to the kind used for rock-climbing, tough. Yet the thrill remains. "You do get to fly; so whatever pain there is, you're flying up there."

Rockin' Gospel

Ozzie Jones intends to transform the Lincoln Theatre into a rockin' church for "Black Nativity," with audiences singing and dancing in the aisles and testifying to the Lord. The show opens Thursday and runs through Dec. 30.

Jones, also a composer and actor, came here to direct "Black Nativity" at the invitation of the Lincoln's executive director, Jocelyn Russell, who'd worked with him at the Freedom Repertory Theatre in Philadelphia.

"Usually," said Jones of Langston Hughes's retelling of the Gospel, "it's done like a pageant, so there's usually a lot of people and a lot of dancers and a big set." His version, he explained last week, will be lean but lively, with costumed singers and dancers from here and Philadelphia. "The approach I'm taking is pretty much just to tell the story as straight-ahead as possible, and also, I'm a hip-hop artist, so it's really stripped down like hip-hop music is."

Jones, who has one or more preachers in his own family back in Philadelphia, wants his "Black Nativity" to combine the sanctity of a church service with the participatory abandon of a concert, to "feel like those chitlin' circuit plays or amateur night at the Apollo. . . . It's a 1,200-seat house, but I want it to feel like 100," he said.

Jones told Backstage he's mulling over an offer to become the artistic director at the Lincoln. His first original production would be "Sanctified Juke Joint," a show he's created based on a Zora Neale Hurston book about blues singers finding stardom in Heaven.

Follow Spots

* Robert Prosky will read the celebrated "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial on Sunday at 11:30 at the Newseum, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Part of Family Day at the Newseum, Prosky will be followed by Ron Parady, who plays Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre, and Washington native Patrick Collins, who plays Tiny Tim. A choir will lead carols and Santa will drop by. Call 703-284-3544.

* Studio Theatre's Joy Zinoman is still grinning about her confab last week with British playwright Tom Stoppard. "It was a very warm and thrilling seven hours and 40 minutes," she said of the visit. Stoppard came in to catch Studio's production of his "Indian Ink." He met the cast and crew and toured the theater, which he likened to a mini-National Theatre of the UK, with its performance spaces, scene shops, classrooms and rehearsal halls. Zinoman wouldn't go into detail about his reaction to the play, but said Stoppard "talked about how thrilled he was that it was done with so much devotion."

CAPTION: Carolyn Pasquantonio: From Shakespeare's Juliet to Olney's high-flying "Peter Pan."

CAPTION: Jerry Whiddon, left, Heather McDonald and Jeff Davis collaborated in "An Almost Holy Picture" here in 1996.