The Fairlington Players present Howard Richardson's "Dark of the Moon" Nov. 20, 21, and 22 in the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St, Arlington. Curtain time is 8:30.

The Fairlington Players are off to a gruesome start this season. First they ran "Veronicas Room," a charming drama about necrophilia (no kidding). Now they are doing a version of Howard Richardson's "Dark of the Moon" that has the witches stealing the show.

The play sprang from a tryout at the National "Theatre more than 35 years ago to become a Broadway hit. It has been revamped by Richardson, who hopes for a Broadway revival; this is the new version's first staging.

Long a favorite of high school and college drama coaches, the play was based on Richardson's boyhood memories of the love and sadism that smothered the valley folk of North Carolina's Great Smokey Mountains.

The play is peopled with "the names of those I grew up with," Richardson said in a recent telephone interview. "My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and my uncle wrote "The Klansman," the book "Birth of a Nation" was based on."

Richardson aparently hopes for a similar movie success, since his revision, he explains, is "based on the principle that you don't tell your audience, you show them. So I've included a few more scenes that show more of the story."

And that's the problem. With no less than nine scenes in the first act, the lags between set changes have cumulative, dulling effect. That is both unfortunate and unfair, since the play is anything but dull. It is gruesome, chilling, forceful, profound, funny and distinctly human, but not dull.

For those whose drama coaches chose "Our Town" instead, here is the plot: Boy meets girl., boy marries girl; girl is unfaithful, girl dies. The twist is that the boy, John, happens to be a witch who has fallen under the spell of the very human Barbara Allen. In order to marry her, John must turn his back on his own people, so he joins the valley folk as a human. Also, Barbara must be faithful for one year, and must not hassle her new husband about his strange reluctance to go to church.

The hitch develops when Barbara's baby turns out to be a witch, too -- a turn of events that confirms the worst gossip among the valley folk about John, the outsider.

John, meanwhile, is trying both to ward off the enticements of his old witch community and to cope with the unfamiliar responsibilities of life as a human.When the valley folk burn his baby as a witch, it does noting to endear them to him.

"Humans always kill the things they don't understand," he says.

He suffers his final agony when he returns to his old mountain stomping ground and watches the valley folk, under the guidance of a Baptist preacher, help one of Barbara's old beaux "rid the valley of a witch." Coven-like, the crowd surrounds Barbara and the boy, and she is made to be unfaithful.

"It's a play about outsiders," says the playwright, "and about the love-hate relationship that develops when a stranger tries to join a group.They work to get him in, and yet they want to push him out."

The witches provide the sparkle in this jewel, and those roles have recieved the most careful treatment by the Fairlington troupe. The witches' creepy, blood-red wings (designed by Janet Barnhardt), their eerie dancing (choreographed by Bob Myers), and effective direction by Phil Harris, which had them springing upon the audience in a way that continually surprised, all served to make them the more interesting -- and more understandable -- of the two groups.

The valley folk were led with born-again zeal by Preacher Haggler, magnificently portrayed by Kenneth Allison.

Then there are the main characters, John and Barbara, played by the young Dale Brookshire and the blond Robin Tucker. Brookshire obviously has had training as a dancer, and it stood him in good stead in this performance. He did little else but sway with this challenging role, however.

Tucker's Barbara Allen was so obnoxious that her ultimate death seemed well earned.This was not, perhaps, the intention of the playwright.

One minor flaw in the production could be fixed easily if the makeup artist would consider the unlikelihood of Depression-era mountain folk having their hair styled.

These are the thoughts that occur to one during the wobbly first act. By the second act, all is forgiven. Scene changes pick up speed, the witches get to dance, we discover that Barbara's mother can act as well as sing, and Preacher Haggler has a revival.

Then comes the scene -- tastefully done, of course -- wherein the witches watch from their precarious perch as Barbara Allen is had, communally. John discovers that she must die, and that he must return to his witchery -- bits of information that he conveys with gentleness to the howling Barbara. -

Perhaps because the witches were so appealing in this version, and Barbara Allen is so distasteful -- or perhaps because the playwright intended it that way -- one is left with a feeling of satisfaction with the outcome.

And that's the most gruesome part.