The curtain opened to show a slender, gray-haired man standing on the stage dressed in casual clothes. "Hello," the man said, "my name is Harry Monahan. People say something happens to me when I put on a black robe."

At that point, the man donned a judge's black robe. Then he said: "See -- nothing has happened to me. I haven't changed at all. I am just the same."

The time was June 1984. The occasion was the annual Montgomery County Bar Review, an annual show in which lawyers and judges make fun of each other and themselves. The man in this skit was Montgomery County Judge Henry (Harry) J. Monahan, who had a reputation as a humorless judge who frequently berated the attorneys, the police officers and others appearing before him.

Monahan's self-parody brought down the house.

Some members of the legal community said it also marked the turning point in Monahan's relationship with many who had complained about "getting hell from Harry" in the courtroom and who had opposed his bid to rise to the higher Circuit Court. Monahan had been criticized for his abruptness with lawyers, his bitter tongue lashings and his strict rules of decorum.

Since the bar review skit last summer, Monahan has made considerable progress in repairing the damage he had done, some lawyers said.

"It looked like he was acknowledging there had been some problems, and he was being a good sport about it," said Thomas Cravens, president-elect of the Montgomery County Bar Association.

Monahan, having gotten past those difficulties, is now faced with new troubles.

Acquitted Wednesday of misdemeanor charges, for medical reasons, Monahan is on administrative assignment while awaiting the outcome of a judicial review that will determine whether he is competent to return to his full duties as a judge. The review, by the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, is expected to take four to six weeks.

Monahan, an intense man who sat stony-faced and dry-eyed through his two-day trial, has declined to comment on the proceedings or on his plans for the future. But his attorneys, William J. Rowan III and James J. Cromwell, said he wants to resume his full position as a judge.

They also said that Monahan, despite the absence of any visible emotion, has lived through a "veil of tears" since the night of May 2 when he suffered what his doctors say was an uncommon form of amnesia, brought on by a small brain stem stroke. When Monahan regained his memory about 8 a.m., he testified, he learned that he had been arrested and charged with breaking and entering at a private home and assaulting two police officers. Police said that Monahan had a blood alcohol content of .228 percent; a level of .13 percent is sufficient for a charge of intoxication in Maryland.

"I couldn't believe it," Monahan told the court. " . . . I wanted the earth to open and swallow me up."

A judge ruled that Monahan was not responsible for his actions because of the transient global amnesia that his doctors said occurred as a result of a stroke. A person suffering from this form of amnesia has no control over his behavior and may drink more than usual, Monahan's doctors testified.

For Monahan, the judge who always insisted upon order, to be out of order came as a jolt to those who have practiced before him in the courtroom and felt the sting of his rebukes. And 93 of them said so in the affidavits they filed with the court attesting to Monahan's normally sober and reserved behavior.

The affidavits portrayed Monahan as a man of "high principles and high standards," said retired judge Edward O. Thomas, who was brought in to hear the case and who found Monahan innocent

Others who know Monahan describe him as a self-made man who once considered the priesthood, a devoted father of three children, and a diligent worker.

Health problems have dogged Monahan for years. He had one kidney removed during the 1950s and he suffered a heart attack last December. In addition to the stroke that doctors say occurred on May 2, he was hospitalized for treatment for a second small stroke in late May.

Monahan was born in New York City on Nov. 15, 1932. He was one of three sons of an Irish Catholic immigrant who came to the United States before World War I. Later, the family moved to Connecticut.

In 1955, Monahan received a bachelor of science degree from Georgetown University. He spent the next two years, 1955 to 1957, in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps.

After Monahan left the Army, he attended law school at night and received his law degree in 1963 from Georgetown University.

Monahan was appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes in June 1981 to serve as a Montgomery County District Court judge. The term is for 10 years.

In the spring of 1983, Monahan sought to be appointed to the Circuit Court, and as part of that process he had his name included on a straw poll ballot sent to members of the county's bar association. The results of that poll are used by the commission that makes nominations for judgeships to the governor.

A score in the 90 percent range is considered exemplary. But Monahan rated a score between 30 and 40, one of the worst ratings for a sitting judge in Montgomery County, according to an attorney familiar with the results.

News reports of Monahan's poor relations with other lawyers in the county followed, but Monahan soon began mending fences. The most notable was the skit at the Montegomery County Bar Review.

"That was the turning point, he could make fun of himself. That began to change everything," according to Rowan.