How can you do this to us, Stephen Wade? After all we've been to each other! We gave you 10 years of our life! And now you think you can just pack up your banjo tonight and leave?

What about our hopes for a life together? I mean, we know you never exactly made any promises during all those nights in the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage, but you knew we had come to count on your being there. What are we supposed to do now?

"Look, it's not like that," says Wade, his soulful eyes darting around the room, checking for exits. He's clearly tortured with guilt. "I love Washington. I really want to settle down here. It's just that 10 years is a long time... ." And he goes on with this talk of growing and stretching himself, as if he were the only one who mattered.

Well, what about us, Stephen? When are you going to make a commitment?

"I don't know," he says, miserably. "Maybe in a few years. It's just that I never allowed myself to think very far into the future. The nature of my business is such that it's not a good thing to do. I never made any assumptions. I just always tried to proceed on a show-to-show basis. That's all you have any control over anyway."

Then he leans across the table, agonized and earnest, widening those eyes he uses as stage props -- the wonder-filled eyes of a 3-year-old who's just seen his first elephant. "The only permanent things are in your heart, anyway," he says, in the aw-shucks accents of America's heartland. "Or in your memory."

Damn. It ain't easy loving a banjo picker.

Actually, it's far too easy to love this one, as Wade's decade-long run at Arena would seem to indicate. More than 334,000 people have seen him in the 180-seat theater since he began. That's roughly half the population of the District of Columbia. In the last few weeks, Wade loyalists were hurling themselves at the Arena box office in vain attempts to crack the sold-out barrier. Who would have guessed all this in January 1981, when, fresh from sold-out runs in Vancouver, Cleveland and his hometown Chicago, as well as a so-so reception in New York, he blew into Washington for an engagement that was supposed to last three weeks.

He was 28. He brought with him five banjos, three suitcases and his improbable one-man show, an off-the-wall crazy quilt of clog-dancing, tale-telling and declamatory swagger, stitched together with Wade's dazzling five-string virtuosity and infectious glee.

It was called "Banjo Dancing, or The 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song Dance Folklore Convention and Banjo Contest ... and How I Lost," and it carried his audience narratively from the New York of a 19th-century Jewish businessman to Tom Sawyer's whitewashed fence in Missouri to the ghostly hollows of the mountain South where his instrument yelped and galloped like a terrified hound.

He raced through a breathless, banjo-paced narration of "Beauty and the Beast" in which every word begins with F and, in some sort of oratorical apogee, whipped through the audience demonstrating an authentic street spiel for 25-cent pens "guaranteed to write on both sides of a piece of paper" by successfully peddling every one.

"Anybody here have perfect pitch?" he'd ask, tuning one of his exhausted banjos yet another time. "Then don't listen."

All this was somehow as relentlessly irresistible as a carpetbag full of puppies. Critics raved. Cabinet officers and congressmen flocked to hear him, as did teenagers and tourist groups. Wade, with his Harpo Marx curls, mountain boots and small-town preacher's pin-stripe suit, was extended in the Old Vat for two more weeks, then four, then six months. He had been sold out for 57 weeks in Chicago, but swept past that record with ease to become the longest-running show in Washington history and, eventually, one of the five longest in the nation. Somewhere around his 1,000th performance he sort of grafted onto our consciousness, the latest -- and among the most American -- of Washington monuments.

He insists he never noticed that happening.

"It's almost embarrassing to talk about this," he said the other day, squirmingly reluctant to engage in self-examination. "In the beginning there was a certain amount of uncertainty, of course. ... But after a while we just let that sort of fade away. I still remember the first anniversary. That was sort of amazing. ... But I still look in bewilderment at what was going on. ... I concentrated on my performances. I could never get beyond that."

When pressed he acknowledges a few vague milestones along the way. There was the day -- he can't remember when -- that he moved from the apartment across the street from the theater into another in that same building. And the day a few years ago when he moved to the house he's now renting in Burleith. And even though "I've always had a kind of reluctance to acquire stuff," there was the time in 1987 when he gave up and bought a television set.

But other than those, he insists, he's lived one show at a time.

"There were lots of offers from other cities," he remembers, "but Washington is the intellectual and in many ways the emotional center" of everything he cares about in music.

"Just look what you've got here: there's the folk archives at the Library of Congress ... drive-time bluegrass on WAMU. There's the Smithsonian Folklife Festival ... the National Council of Traditional Arts ... the Folk Arts Endowment. ... This is the place!"

He was more than content, he said, to spend his nights performing in the Old Vat and his days rooting in the folk archives to "fill the well" that kept his performances alive.

For Arena Stage, says its general manager, Guy Bergquist, Wade was a special attraction: an obvious cash cow whose ticket sales helped fund more experimental works in Arena's other theaters. He was also, Bergquist says, a developmental asset luring first-time customers to the theater complex, some of whom became regular Arena patrons.

For the first six or seven years in particular, Bergquist says, Wade sold out the Old Vat's 180 seats almost every night, averaging well above the 80 percent capacity Arena likes to see in its other two theaters. In the last two or three years, attendance slipped a bit under 80 at Wade's shows, Bergquist said "probably because everyone in Washington had seen him three or four times." He was still profitable, but not so much so that Arena executives couldn't ponder other possible uses for the Old Vat Room.

"There was no sudden decision" to move on, Wade says. "I wanted to write and open the new show {"On the Way Home" opened May 11, 1989} and as we got closer to the 10-year mark I thought it would be nice to stay until then."

Arena Stage, meanwhile, was planning ahead, and about two years ago began thinking seriously about producing plays in the Old Vat during more than just the four weeks of Wade's annual vacation.

"It's a point everybody knew we would get to someday," says Wade. "There are so many other things I want to do. I've been doing a lot of writing. I've even been working on a sitcom."

He's also just come out with his first compact disc, "Dancing Home," an instrumental album that takes the five-string banjo in soft, lyrical directions where, if you love the instrument, you always knew in your heart it could go.

He will, however, keep performing. On Feb. 9 he opens in "Banjo Dancing" at the People's Light and Theater Company in Malvern, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. "It's a theater sort of like Arena," Wade says. "They'll be doing me on the same bill with 'Sister Carrie': two Chicagoans."

And his eyebrows jump with the mirth of a street salesman who just flimflammed you into a 25-cent pen.

"Learning to play the banjo," says Wade, "is like going on an archaeological exploration of America."

If that's true, talking banjos with him is like going on an archaeological exploration of Stephen Wade.

It's a fairly chaotic dig, with old and new thoughts and enthusiasms avalanching down on you constantly. You have to pull him back repeatedly to Chicago, where the Depression had turned his father, a would-be architect, into a manufacturer's representative for housewares and stuffed toys, and his mother, a Shakespeare scholar, into a fashion magazine editor. They never gave up on ideas. When young Stephen wanted an electric guitar, they made him study Segovia.

"But I always had a banjo in my head," he remembers. "I had heard Earl Scruggs on a record when I was just a kid and just went crazy, though I didn't identify the sound until later. I was predisposed to it. It was as if it was answering a call."

In the era of the Beatles, however, an electric guitar seemed to make more sense, and he fooled around with one until somebody sat on it during high school. After that, he said, a banjo was inevitable, though it took seven years. By that time he was studying English at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

"I had a lust for it I can't fully explain. I don't think I had fully rational reasons. But I remember I had heard Jerry Garcia play and the banjo seemed to me like a whole orchestra ... like a rainbow."

He earned the money for it one summer while living in the Washington area with his brother and working at a record warehouse in Fairfax. Back in Chicago he looked up Fleming Brown, whom he knew from his illustrations in Pete Seeger's how-to-play-the-banjo book. Within six months, "Fleming said I was playing all his mistakes back to him."

During college Wade had "sort of thought of being an English teacher" but "Fleming told me I had to go onstage" and soon he found himself performing at bars and discovering a way to combine his twin loves of scholarship and music.

"Since I couldn't sing I decided I had to do something between numbers. Fleming had told me that when I first went onstage I would automatically forget 50 percent of everything I knew. So I looked in my books" and found a frontier soliloquy whose ringing self-confidence matched that of his instrument:

" 'I'm the terror of the state of Arkansas, the original iron-jawed, brass-mounted copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of the Ozarks, sired by a hurricane, half-brother to the cholera, near-related to the smallpox on my mother's side. A man they call sudden death and general decimation ...'

"Well, I had the book in one hand and the banjo going with the other, and that worked once. So I had to learn it." And from that, eventually, came "Banjo Dancing."

Doing the same show for so long would make most performers stale. What's been impressive to note over the decade, however, has been not only Wade's enduring passion for the his music but the continuing growth of his technical skill. To his earlier mastery of the old-time two-finger or "frailing" banjo, he's added not only the machine-gun three-finger style made famous by Earl Scruggs but such digital exotica as "three-finger index lead, three-finger thumb lead, old-time three-finger and unsyncopated index lead three-finger," all of which he displays in "On the Way Home".

He shrugs off such progress as a natural evolution, but concedes, "I've worked on it a lot."

Likewise, thes fascination with American folklore, which he explores so lovingly in his shows, "was never separate in my mind" from the music and the instrument he learned from Fleming, he says. "It was an inseparable part of it."

The banjo, he says, "is a metaphor for America. It has iconic significance. It was a black instrument, brought here via slavery, and shared with mountain whites who had an Anglo-Scotch tune stock. I love that about it."

Its longtime popularity in minstrel shows "made it sort of horrible for some people for many years ... but you have to look beyond that. ... Minstrel shows evolved into traveling country music shows." Bluegrass music pioneer Bill Monroe "used to take his tent with him just like a circus" in his travels through the small-town America of the 1940s.

"He not only brought a tent and had guys do comedy between music shows, he brought baseball uniforms! His his band played baseball during the days! That's partly how he drew a crowd for the evenings... .

"Imagine the possibilities!" says Wade, wonder-struck at the concept. "A bluegrass baseball team!"

And there's more.

"Tony Ellis told me when he was with Monroe, they played at drive-in movie theaters! People sat in their cars and honked their horns instead of clapping! Think about that! He said they stood on top of the refreshment stand playing to everybody's back bumper!"

Wade rolls his eyes in delight at the concept. Behind them you can see already forming the vehicle that will carry him back to Washington.