At the age of 51, Richard Long, formerly a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and a member of Newhouse News Service's Washington bureau, decided to quit his job with the government because he "got the ideas he wasn't enjoying life as much as (he) used to."

One November night, his friends decided to get together and read two plays he had written during his new life of unemployment.

Four months and six performances later, the small group of friends has grown into an acting company of 35. They are ready to test their talent in the D.C. One-Act Play Tournament March 17.

They call themselves the Woodley Players, because they first read the plays at Long's house on Woodley Road. Most of the players have never acted before.

Kitty Peacock, who works for the Meredith Corporation, is making her first stage appearance in a lead role in one of Long's plays, "Shenandoah Night Train." Peacock said that, at first, she decided to join the company because of her friendship with Long.

"But after we got started, I thought, 'By golly, this is really good!'"

"Shenandoah Night Train" is set during John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, when the famous abolitionist tried to take move in a plan to invade the South and liberate the slaves.

The play focuses on what Long calls "an irony of history" - that the first person to die during the raid was Heywood Shepherd, a free black man.

Long, a Civil War buff, tries to conjure up the spirit as well as the history of Harpers Ferry during the 1850s. While working on a full-length book about Blue Mountain in Virginia, Long spent months taking his tape recorder into the mountains and interviewing the residents.

In the play, he creates a family and friend for Heywood Shepherd, bagage master of the Harper Ferry train station, and uses the relationship between Shepherd and his son to explore different attitudes toward slavery and freedom.

Heywood Shepherd is proud to have worked hard enough "within the system" to buy his freedom. Shepherd's son, Jim, feels that all blacks must be freed and that violence will be necessary. The father-son conflict culminates in a fight.

Fulton Caldwell, program analyst for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare who plays Heywood Shepherd, said the conflict is a universal one.

"It's the same in any family, any time. The old order is challenged by the new," he explained. But he said that the fight scene was particularly difficult for him, because he had felt a similar anger at one time and buried it.

Long's other play, "A Private Matter," is the story of a young reporter who finds out that the administrator of a government agency dealing woth alcohol abuse has a serious drinking problem himself.

Formerly a public information officer at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Long said that his play was not about and drug,often people in responsible positions have drug or alcoholism problems themselves."

"We knocked on doors all over town to find a place to put on the show,because we had faith Dick had written some good plays," said Bill Delaney, the most seasoned actor in the group. A former real estate agent who took up acting after his firm went out of business, Delaney has been performing with local theater companies for the past three years.

The Woodly Players finally took on a challenge that would make veteran companies quake: performing the show on three consecutive weekend in three different locations, Potter's House, Grace Episcopal Church, and this past weekend, the Paul Robeson Threatre at 1632 O St. NW.

Long and Delaney decided to keep the cast limited to friends, without holding auditions for people with acting experience. Long said that one of his biggest thrills was watching his friends develop as actors, from the stage of simply reading lines to the point where they could make characters come alive.

He still keeping open the option of returning to government service, but first he wants to finish his book, find a publisher and try his hand at more plays.

He already has served as an inspiration for his friends. Cast member Jack Clark, a nine-year employ of the District government who said he had been thinking for a long time about making funiture and pursuing other avocations, turned in his resignation a few weeks before opening night.

As for the other cast member, they simply want to keep on acting. Said Kitty Peacock, "I've been bitten."

The Woodley Players plan to perform "Shenandoah Night Train," directed by Michael Cotter, for the D.C. One-Act Play Tournament on March 17 at the Chevy Chase Community Center.