If you're casting about for a success story in the local theater community, T.J. Edwards' is as good as any. It may even be better than most -- proof, if we need proof these days, that Washington is turning out its share of actors, directors and playwrights.

Edwards had virtually no theatrical experience when he emigrated here six years ago from Michigan, a graduate student in business who had suffered terminal burnout one semester before he was to receive his MBA. He has since become one of the more visible actors on the small theater circuit and blossomed into the area's most promising playwright. "N.Y. Mets" recently won him the Helen Hayes Award for best original play of 1986, while his latest endeavor, "National Defense," begins previews tomorrow night at the Washington Project for the Arts, as part of the Woolly Mammoth's two-play summer repertory.

Lest we congratulate ourselves prematurely, however, on an enlightened artistic climate that encourages such accomplishments, it should be noted that:

1) So far Edwards' theatrical earnings for a given year have yet to go over the $2,500 mark.

2) He waits on tables two days a week at the American Cafe to supplement his income and rents two of the three bedrooms in his semirenovated town house on the outer edges of Dupont Circle to make the mortgage payments. Recently, his doctor, fearing Edwards might be developing an ulcer from the accumulating pressures, ordered him to drop out of the cast of "As Is" at the Studio.

3) When Edwards wonders where he goes from here -- as he often does, having a fairly reflective nature -- he finds himself looking well beyond the Beltway.

"On one hand, good things are happening and I don't want to leave," he says. "But I want to get better. Given the point I'm at right now, I don't know where the challenges are going to come from anymore. I say to myself, how long can somebody do this -- go on year after year in a city like this, where the pay isn't there, the houses aren't there, where you have to find the encouragement to keep going in yourself or your peers?"

These are not the reflections of the would-be artist (of which the city also has its share), whose dreams outstrip his talents and who fills the gap with sour complaints about being underappreciated. If anything, most people are in agreement that T.J. (for Timothy James) Edwards, 29, is as gifted as he is personable. But he is also consumed with self-improvement.

Linda Reinisch, the producing director of Woolly Mammoth, recalls attending a performance of Ian McKellen's "Acting Shakespeare" with him at the National Theatre. Captivated by the British actor's performance, Edwards turned to Reinisch at one point and exclaimed enthusiastically, "Did you hear it? Did you hear it? The head tones! That's what I've got to work on."

If Washington can lay some claim to Edwards' career, his story also points up a continuing irony. There is still a cap on the ambitions one can justifiably entertain here. Individual artists tend to mature more rapidly than the local institutions that give them their start. You can only go so far and then you've got to go elsewhere.

"After six years in Washington," Edwards says, "I worry. What's going to happen in the next three years? I'm afraid of losing the stimulus -- just churning it out. Will I be better off cultivating my talents in another city, another environment? Writing is something I'm going to do, and it's going to take its course. But I also want to be a great actor, I really do. Not just a good actor or a respectable actor. A great actor. Derek Jacobi! It seems to me that's something you can have some control over. I can put myself in a community of actors who are so much better than I am that it gives me something to shoot for. Expatriocy is something that has been spinning around in my head a lot lately."

In other fields of endeavor, they call this the brain drain. Washington theater suffers its ravages constantly.

Edwards is proud of the garden he wrestled from the lot behind his house that, only a year ago, was littered with debris and is now blooming happily with the fruit of his labors. The garden was a top priority. Some of the inside walls still await plaster and paint and the broken railings on the banister leading to the second floor look like so many rotten teeth.

It is here that Edwards indulges his bent for privacy. In such plays as "Christmas on Mars" and "Life and Limb," he has shown himself particularly adept at playing the boy-next-door, in both his wholesome and tarnished incarnations. Offstage, however, the easy affability can prove deceptive. It is not necessarily a mask, but it can be interpreted as a form of self-protection, deflecting the overly intrusive and holding (albeit nicely) the world at bay.

"He seems right there," says Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth, "and at the same time you have this sense that he has a whole other life going on. It's not off-putting. But there's something churning in his brain -- you sense it -- and not many people have access to it." "T.J.'s waters run deep," echoes actress Nancy Robinette, one of his few confidants, who adds, "He's not exactly reclusive, but he's definitely a hermit of some sort. To get T.J. just to have a beer after rehearsals is a major accomplishment."

"I don't really like hanging around people in the theater all that much," Edwards concedes. "It's so incestuous. It just turns into a lot of backbiting. Different people rejuvenate themselves in different ways. Some people need that fix of being around a lot of people. My fix is privacy. The writing has got to percolate up in my head. It takes time and relaxation to tap into the subconscious and let things happen."

He reflects a moment.

"Personally, I don't like conflict. I'm a fairly passive person. But in the plays I've written so far, an absurd, mean, comic streak sort of runs through them. I sometimes wonder if the tone of the plays doesn't express a restlessness, a need to take my imagination to some black, violent place. I mean, Deborah Pryor {author of "Burrhead," in which Edwards once played a leading role} writes these incredibly sexual plays, and she's as pure as anyone you'd ever meet. Maybe play writing is an outlet for all the suppressed aspects of one's personality. Jeez, do I know?

"I do know it is a hard, strange art form. You can't preach, you can't tell an audience anything. That turns them off immediately. A play has to go someplace, but you can't drive it yourself. You've got to be so subtle and backhanded, just let the characters speak and strip everything else away. That's the lesson of 'National Defense.' That's what's taken me 12 drafts and I'm still working on it after a year and a half."

The germ for "National Defense" came from Gary Hart's press secretary, Kevin Sweeney, who one day over beers was telling Edwards about the perils of nuclear blackmail and how the problem only promised to get worse in the next 25 years. "You really ought to write a play about it," he suggested. Shortly after, Sweeney sent Edwards a packet of relevant materials. Edwards, horrified by what he read, immediately sat down at his computer and set to work.

What he turned out was, in essence, a political tract. "We had a reading of it and it was awful," he says. "Afterwards, everyone said, 'Okay, we know nuclear terrorism is bad. So what?' That was it for Draft 1."

"Most of the play was a political discussion, among three characters -- an FBI agent, a CIA-type and a mysterious woman -- about nuclear issues," remembers Shalwitz. "But in the last three or four pages, there was an interesting, flip-flopping role reversal. The challenge was to get T.J. to throw out all the political stuff, craft a subtext under the text and make a human drama out of the situation. He has such an identification with downtrodden people, people in tough circumstances, trying to find a human connection. It seemed to get easier and easier for him to make changes as we went along. Now I really think 'National Defense' could be his breakthrough play."

It is set in a boarded-up fourth-floor room in a Catholic school. The FBI agent and the CIA-like spy are keeping surveillance on a warehouse across the street, where a group of terrorists is constructing a nuclear bomb. To the mysterious seductress, Edwards has since added a deaf nun, who chatters up a storm, and a punk rocker, who uses the school room as a crash pad.

"The play isn't a mouthpiece anymore," Edwards says, although just what it is -- besides being reportedly quite funny -- is less clear. Edwards' definition of drama itself may serve in this instance. "It's about how people deal with the crumbling fac ades all around them," he says.

Edwards' father started out on the Buick assembly line in Milwaukee and worked his way up. For a while, his mother made spark plugs. "We get along," he says, at the same time suggesting that his theatrical career was the last thing they envisioned for him. "My folks didn't even want me to go to graduate school," he explains. "It was always 'Get a job, get a job.' Anywhere. It didn't matter. 'Get a mortgage. Get car payments. Get a wife. Get a couple of kids. Make money.' That was it.

"I don't know what it is that happens inside people. All of a sudden, the world is closing in and you feel you've just got to get away, try something else, express yourself." For Edwards, it closed while at the University of Michigan. "I guess the final straw was this motorcycle accident I had. I was going down the highway at 60 miles an hour, the motorcycle flipped over and the last thing I saw was this semi, barreling down on me. Somehow I managed to escape with only a broken thumb. I pushed the motorcycle 10 miles back to Ann Arbor, and said, 'You've got another life. Do whatever you want. Goodbye.' "

He chose the theater as his new calling and Washington as his destination, although not because the city's reputation for the arts had penetrated the Midwest. "It could have been Chicago. It could have been any big East Coast city," he says. "The only reason I came here was because I knew I could get a job as a waiter. At the time, I was working in a restaurant called the Gandy Dancer in Ann Arbor and they also owned Charley's Crab in D.C. So I chose D.C.

"Actually, I spent my first three months here not acting. I was so petrified even to try. I didn't even know what a picture and re'sume' was. Finally, I got up my courage and went to the New Playwrights' Theatre, the Studio and the Source. At the Source, they said, 'Will you work box office?' I said, 'Sure, I'll do anything.'

"My first night there, I met Bart Whiteman {Source's founder}, introduced myself and told him I wanted to be an actor. 'Well,' he said, 'I just had someone drop out of a show. You want to do his part?' I mean, no audition, no nothing. That was it."

The show was a revival of "The Queen and the Rebels." Edwards went on to appear in nearly a dozen other Source productions, including "The Glass Menagerie" (he was the gentleman caller), which had a London engagement, toured Yugoslavia and ended up as part of the entertainment on a cruise ship, plying the Mediterranean. He was hooked.

Although he has had bit roles and understudy assignments at Arena Stage, his allegiance continues to lie with the smaller theaters. "I'd prefer to be aid little and get to create things than be one of those walk-ons at Arena. All they are are chess pieces, pushed around by directors. Theater's turning into such a circus and production values are not something I value that much. I'd rather be at a place like Source, where the timbers and beams and chunks of wire and glass are hanging down, but you're stimulated by something gritty happening on the stage."

In the matter of pay, at least, Edwards has gotten his wish. As a member of the Woolly Mammoth acting ensemble last season, he netted $10 a performance. (This year it's up to $20.) In addition, as the author of "N.Y. Mets," he received 5 percent of the box office take. "N.Y. Mets" was one of Woolly Mammoth's big hits. It ran 29 performances in a theater seating 110, and brought in about $30,000. Edwards' share: $1,500.

By workaday standards, that is a pittance. That it could be considered a windfall says something about the harsh economics of local theater. Edwards, after all, is one of the fortunate ones.

There may have been a playwrighting instinct in T.J. Edwards all along. What activated it, however, was a production of "American Buffalo," starring Al Pacino, that played the Kennedy Center in 1983. David Mamet's play recounts the efforts of three lower-class denizens of a Chicago junk shop to plot a petty heist that never comes off. Mamet's heralded dialogue -- an evocative amalgam of inarticulateness, mangled grammar and argot scraped from the gutter -- found a highly receptive ear in Edwards.

"I consider that a great play," Edwards says. "But I thought I'll make it even more ironic. I'll write a play about people who deal with words every day, all the time, and who don't know how to talk to one another." So was born "N.Y. Mets," which looked at the lower-class denizens of a junky New York typewriter repair shop and manuscript-typing service.

It had an initial showing in Source's Washington Theatre Festival. Edwards then shelved it, turning to "Busboy." Again the Mamet influence was undeniable: Three babbling losers -- a busboy, an unemployed philosopher and a would-be chef -- hatch the notion of assassinating the president of the United States by planting a bomb in a cake and smuggling it into a Polynesian restaurant where the chief executive is to dine. It was mounted for a run in Source's now-defunct Resource in 1985. Edwards figures he put about $250 of his own money in it, and in return reaped $50 at the gate. Recently there's been talk of a British production in one of London's fringe theaters, but as yet none of Edwards' plays has been produced outside Washington.

"T.J. has a bizarre creative mind. The plots he comes up with are so far-fetched. But I think because he's an actor, his characters are grounded in reality," says Pat Sheehy, who directed "Busboy." "In fact, because he was primarily an actor then, he couldn't always step back. It was a rocky experience for us both that ultimately boiled down to me saying to him at one point, 'Look! Either I direct or you direct!' Being a female, working with a strong male cast and a strong male playwright, I really had to assert myself."

Edwards' subsequent association -- as both actor and playwright -- with the Woolly Mammoth seems to have brought him out from under Mamet's shadow, helped him find his stride and also restrained what he still admits is a strong impulse to intervene during the rehearsals of his plays. He rewrote "N.Y. Mets" with specific Woolly Mammoth actors in mind, who put it through a series of readings. Then Edwards rewrote some more.

In Woolly Mammoth's superlative production, blustering Phil, Rosie, his taciturn secretary, and Ernie, a crackpot author who looked to have wandered in from Damon Runyonland, struggled to get through another day at the office. But under the hilarity swirled eddies of loneliness, heartache and sexual ambiguity.

Edwards allows that he's much more open to give-and-take these days and increasingly conscious of "the voice I want to have -- kinda wonderful and nutty, like Stoppard." But an elusiveness nonetheless remains. "As an actor," Shalwitz says, "his strong suit is his sense of enigma. T.J. has a very easy time on stage, saying one thing and making you wonder if he isn't feeling and believing just the opposite." The observation applies just as well to his offstage presence.

"Oh, this isn't all innocence and benign wonderfulness," Edwards says, reacting to the "nice-guy" image. "I can be the nicest guy in the world to get what I think I need. But there are other ways to control a situation. I don't throw fits. But I'm shrewd. I manipulate circumstances to a certain degree. I've got an agenda at this point in my life. I know what I'm doing."

Which leaves the question: Where will T.J. Edwards be doing it? How long before his growing reputation or his own restlessness takes him elsewhere?

What is true for him holds for a majority of Washington theater artists and writers. The city that serves as a breeding ground offers little in the way of follow-up -- institutional support, grants, commissions, decent wages -- that justify staying here. It would be comforting to think that Washington could hold on to T.J. Edwards and his ilk.

"History," points out Pat Sheehy, "argues against it."