Dotty Wiebush twirled the homemade "Spooke Fruitie" flavored cotton candy on sticks while her husband Joe sold lemonade and popcorn near the red and white circus tent in downtown Kensington.

Longtime circus buffs, Wiebush, a chemistry professor at the Naval Academy, and his wife finally got their chance to go on the entertainment road this summer. They are jockeying refreshments nightly in 23 towns in the Northeast where the Tent Troupe, high-school actors from St. Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, are performing for their eighth season.

"We've been wanting to this for a long time," said Mrs. Wiebush with a grin as she pulled the sticky wisps of candy from the front of her makeshift apron.

Inside the big top, a $9,000 giant canvas erected for the free performances in Kensington before the tour began, the Tent Troupe brought down the standing-room-only audience of more than 500 last week with their performance of "Johnny Belinda."

Breathless from excitement John Lastova, 17, the villain Locky McCormick in the drama, said after the play he'd "never be the same again" as a result of the Tent Troupe experience. "I've matured. I'm more open with people. I really learned a lot from being the bad guy and trying to make people hate you."

The traveling theater was initiated eight years ago by St. Luke's youth minister David Shaheen as a growth experience for the teenagers he works with and a ministry through the arts to provoke audiences with subtle moral lessons.

He and director Roney Shawe, who has been associated with the Silver Spring Stage and other local community theater groups, scour available plays for those with the proper "punch."

Their earlier productions have included "The Miracle Worker," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Cinderella" and "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon."

"I've always loved the theater and the circus," said "Pastor David," the wiry and energetic 36-year-old minister, as he moved about the three circus tents and three large rented trucks for hauling props, costumes, sleeping cots, power generator and kitchen goods.

"I love to go to the theater and be moved. And if you portray a character and really get into that role, you can learn a lot about yourself," he said.

"Johnny Belinda," written by the late Washingtonian Elmer Harris and set in 1900 in a Scottish immigrant community on Prince Edward Island off the Nova Scotia coast, is an interpretation of the Golden Rule. The lead character, Belinda, is a young deaf woman who has been discriminated against as a mere "creature" by others in her community.

The message is "best summed up in the last line," explained 16-year-old Ginny Smith, who recites the line on stage as a wrinkled old woman with a thick Scottish brogue. "It goes: 'Our love should not be just words and talk but true love which shows itself in action.'"

In preparing since April for what Pastor David believes is the only traveling tent theater production in the U.S., the 28 members of the company have been learning their lines as well as the often grueling tasks of theater production.

"We tried to put together a group that is dedicated, committed and workable, but they didn't necessarily have any dramatic ability to start with," said Pastor David. Eight of the 19 cast members of this year's productions of "Johnny Belinda" and "The Wonderful World of Hans Christian Anderson" have traveled previously with the Tent Troupe.

On the road, they arise at 5:30 a.m., travel to the next small town site for a one-day stand, strike their tents, rehearse, perform two plays, participate in a nightly "family meeting" where they share what's going through their heads, collapse the tents supported by massive iron booms, ropes and stakes and fall into bed sometime after midnight.

"You learn to think about other people before yourself," commented Melissa Shawe, who alternates nightly as the lead Belinda and another character, Stella McGuire. "We call this a family experience. If something goes wrong anywhere, it affects us all."