Six actors in combat fatigues, helmets and flak jackets, their young faces smudged with dirt, honed the timing of their entrances, exits, speeches and songs last week during a technical rehearsal of "One Red Flower" at Signature Theatre. Only Florence Lacey, as the mother of a soldier, represented a different generation in this musical adaptation of the 1985 book "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam."

Paris Barclay, a producer-director of high-end television dramas ("City of Angels," "The West Wing," "NYPD Blue") who wrote musicals while a student at Harvard, began trying to adapt "Dear America" into a musical with a rock score soon after it was published. Then he put it away and pursued his television career.

"I've just come back to it in the last few years," he says; ". . . this was a particularly hard nut for me to crack, because I wanted a new kind of form."

The version Eric Schaeffer is directing at Signature Theatre represents Barclay's 23rd draft. The show had readings at Signature last year and at the Kennedy Center in 2001. It premiered at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., that year but has changed "almost by a third" since then, Barclay says. Just last week, a song, a scene and a character were added.

Barclay excerpted about 100 letters from the book. The poem by Maj. Michael Davis O'Donnell that opens the book has become the show's closing number, "If You Are Able." Rather than represent the actual letter-writers on stage, as he attempted in earlier versions, Barclay has created six composite characters, each "built around a real person, and then developed further," he says. "We really wanted to follow them and we really wanted to get emotionally involved with them."

Schaeffer says the characters now "are richer emotionally, and it's created an intimacy [so] you understand what these men are going through." The earlier version was too "polite," he says, "almost too careful and reverent, and now it feels real and ugly at times, and uplifting."

Early in rehearsals, Schaeffer worked on the actors' military camaraderie by bringing in a Marine gunnery sergeant for a half-day crash course in military discipline, body language and talk.

The show expresses both pro and con views of the Vietnam War in the soldiers' words, Barclay says, but it's not difficult to sense his own position. "In the second act, when they start to feel an increased responsibility . . . it starts to dawn on them that they're really affecting the [Vietnamese] people," he says. "Now you can't look at that without thinking about Iraq."

The youthfulness of the current cast, Barclay adds, "makes it even more moving to me, when you see how young they are and what they're going through." It is, he says, "a view of what war is really like, firsthand, from guys that fought in Vietnam."

A 'Producers' Homecoming

"The whole nine weeks have been littered with friends and family," jokes Silver Spring native Michael Thomas Holmes. The actor figures he's had relatives, pals and former teachers in the audience at least two or three times a week during the run of "The Producers" at the Kennedy Center. The touring production closes Sunday and heads to Hartford, Conn.

Holmes's stage name (his family name is Goldsamt) pops up all over the program. He plays Mr. Marks, the mean accounting firm boss; Kevin, a fey costume designer; Jack Lepidus, a loose-toupeed auditioner for the singing dictator in "Springtime for Hitler"; and a judge.

"I have 15 costume changes . . . I'm busy from the beginning of the show to the end, with the exception of 10 minutes in the middle, where I get to sit down," Holmes says. "I have great roles -- they're very featured and they're fun. It's just ridiculously stupid, what I do in the show."

The actor recalls meeting "Producers" creator Mel Brooks after joining the company in Los Angeles 11 months ago. He mimics Brooks's manic compliment/critique: "You're very good, it was very good, you're very good, very good -- but faster, faster -- but you're very good."

Holmes also understudies the role of nutty Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (he went on as Franz for the sixth time last Wednesday) and in a pinch can assay lead shyster Max Bialystock, though at 32 he's a little young and hasn't had to step in for star Lewis J. Stadlen yet.

He plans to leave the company after Hartford. "I really wanted to play Washington, D.C.," he says, but after nearly a year on the road, "it's kind of time to go back to New York [and] continue with my life."

Studio Secondstage Season

Studio Theatre's experimental Secondstage, like the company's main stage, will focus on Russian theater this season. "The Russian Readings" (Oct. 13-17 and 20-24) will reflect today's cutting-edge Russian dramatists. "The Death of Meyerhold" (Jan. 19-Feb. 13) by American Mark Jackson examines the life of innovative Russian stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold from the Bolshevik Revolution through Stalin. "Terrorism" (March 30-April 24), a darkly comic thriller by the Presnyakov brothers, examines scary aspects of modern life. The only non-Russian play is "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" (July 6-Aug. 7) by Rolin Jones, about an "obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe with a genius IQ." Call 202-332-3300.

Follow Spots

* F. Murray Abraham (Oscar winner for "Amadeus") will play the title role in a staged concert reading of "Nathan the Wise" to be presented on Sept. 11 by Theater of the First Amendment. Paul D'Andrea's adaptation of an 18th-century German work struck a chord during its 2001 premiere run at TFA after the terrorist attacks and was broadcast by WETA-TV. It dramatizes a moment during the Crusades when a truce was achieved among Christians, Muslims and Jews. The reading at George Mason University's Center for the Arts begins at 8 p.m.; a discussion at 7 will be led by Islamic scholar John Esposito. Call 703-218-6500 or visit www.tickets.com.

* Round House Theatre seeks actors-singers-dancers of color for a June production of "Once on This Island." The deadline for photos and resumes is Sept. 3; send them to Round House Theatre, P.O. Box 30688, Bethesda, Md. 20824-0688, attn: Casting.

The 23rd draft was the charm for Paris Barclay, whose Vietnam War-themed musical "One Red Flower" is Signature Theatre's season opener. Michael Thomas Holmes has 15 costume changes and lots of fun in "The Producers," which is wrapping up its run at the Kennedy Center.