Ten years ago in her native Finland, Sky Hiltunen wrote a fairy-tale play in only one day. She called it "Born From Good Angels' Tears." "I was looking for a meaningful life," she says. "The play was about a need for self-acceptance and higher purpose."

She now directs the Art and Drama Therapy Institute Inc., which she founded two years ago to provide services to the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled in the Washington area. Most of Hiltunen's clients -- she does not use the word "patients" -- are inner-city adults, and their levels of retardation range from mild to profound.

Hiltunen and her staff of two paid interns and a few consultants see 50 to 60 clients each week and also produce two nights of theater.

"Born From Good Angels' Tears" was inspired by Japanese Noh theater. When Hiltunen first saw the style, "I couldn't understand a word -- but I understood everything that was important," she says. "It captured me and, suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do.

"This theater helps to change people's perception of the mentally retarded," she adds. "It educates them. It's very hard to explain this total love and acceptance we share. They are my teachers, my family."

The institute is holding a benefit today from 3 to 6 p.m. at Herb's Restaurant (1615 Rhode Island Ave. NW). Art created by ADTI clients, as well as paintings donated by local artists, will be on display and for sale. The exhibit runs through Saturday. For further information, call 794-6596.