In recent weeks, the Little Theater of Alexandria has had to deal with:

*A leading man who called to say he couldn't make that evening's show because of a crisis at his other job. He's a physician in an intensive care unit in Baltimore.

*A circuit breaker that tripped five minutes before the curtain was to go up. No one knew where all five circuit breakers were.

*A curtain that tore when it dropped at the end of a performance of "Dial M for Murder."

After more than 50 years of live theater, the Little Theater of Alexandria has come to expect -- and even relish the fact -- that not everything will go according to the script.

"One of the joys of live theater is that no two shows are ever the same," said production vice president Paul Preston.

There are about 50 community theater groups in the Washington area, but the Little Theater of Alexandria, which got its start in Alexandria living rooms in 1934, is the granddaddy of them all. Except for a brief intermission during World War II, the theater has been going strong since the start. It now stages seven shows a year, offers classes, judges one-act plays in a writing contest and holds a high school drama competition.

The group opened its own theater at 600 Wolfe St. in Old Town in 1961.

"It's a pleasure to work here, because as a producer I'm not concerned with finding rehearsal space or a piano," said Preston, who, when not involved with the Alexandria theater or other theatrical ventures, works as a financial consultant.

"The facility makes a huge difference," said the theater's president, Greg Bradford, who works in the African bureau of the State Department. "A performer here only needs to worry about performing. That's why people come here. We're between community and professional theater, in that we don't pay but we have more than other community theaters."

The Little Theater of Alexandria keeps itself solvent primarily on the strength of its box office receipts. "We have paid our way, although we do not have a burgeoning stable of big millionaires," its 50th-anniversary history notes proudly.

As a nonprofit, nonpaying organization, it is probably the most elaborately organized community theater in the area, with a board of governors, seven vice presidents and a battalion of committees. It is also conscious of its commercial appeal. "There's a formula here that works, which is not to say we're stodgy, because we're not," said Bradford. "To change what our patrons expect might sound our death knell."

"Productions don't all have to be box office successes, as long as the season as a whole is a box office success," said Preston.

"We just put in $9,000 worth of lighting," Bradford said, pointing to a computerized light board that allows for smooth fades. "We can make improvements because we need them."

The other thing that keeps the theater going and its standards high is its location. "This is one of the richest areas in the country for talent," said publicity vice president Dolph Veatch, who directed "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" this season.

"People who are attracted to the Alexandria theater in any capacity -- producer, technician, actor, usher -- are amateurs in the true sense of the word, which comes from the Latin, 'to love,' " said Preston. "They do it out of love and loyalty."

"We're not the only ones who benefit from this talent pool -- all the community theater groups do," said Veatch. The Little Theater is a member of the Northern Virginia Theater Alliance, a coalition of 22 Virginia and Washington theater groups. Members of the other groups often audition for its productions, and vice versa.

The theater is doing its part to perpetuate the area's theatrical talent pool with its classes for children and adults, including acting, mime, musical comedy and directing, plus workshops on makeup and lighting.

The theater's alumni, whether from its classes or its productions, are many and notable: Calvin Remsberg, for example, played Old Deuteronomy in "Cats" at the National Theater; Dermot Mulroney, who started at the theater as the Mouse in "The Mouse Who Hated Christmas" under the tutelage of veteran teacher Helen Todd, recently moved up to a CBS movie, "Sin of Innocence."

Little Theater of Alexandria actress Kathy Fannon has a role in the film "Violets Are Blue," actor Steve O'Connor is making his mark on local television, and Thomas Wiggin was in the national company of "Grease." Non-Alexandrian Don Williams, who is directing the upcoming French farce "A Flea in Her Ear," was in the "George Washington" and "Kennedy" television miniseries. And the theater's executive secretary, Elaine Dunston, has appeared in several movies, including "Best Friends" with Goldie Hawn.

However, "We can't claim Goldie Hawn -- the Montgomery Playhouse claims her," said Preston, laughing. "There are some actors in Maryland."

The theater takes seriously its place in Alexandria history. It has what Bradford calls one of the area's most extensive collections of Victorian and colonial costumes, and used to perform colonial revivals in Gadsby's Tavern. It has put on "1776" three times, most recently last summer. "We make a special effort to be over and above in authenticity, because of where we are and who our audience is," said Bradford.

In the next year, it plans to put on "A Flea in Her Ear," "Brigadoon," "The Play's the Thing," "Nightwatch," "Tribute," "Cole," "A Man for All Seasons" ("I'm producing that one, too," said "Brigadoon" producer Alice Head, pointing an index finger to her temple) and "Absurd Person Singular."

The theater's 900 members (anyone who works on a production must join) find, Bradford said, "an outlet in community theater."

"The theater is really kind of a relief from dealing with the Gulf of Sidra," said Veatch, who edits Surface Warfare Magazine during daylight hours.

"Sometimes it can be a relief to deal with the Gulf of Sidra," said Preston.

"Theater is a good life lesson, especially here," said Bradford. "You build something and tear it down. You have a bare, blank stage and a wishful gleam in your eye, and you create the next one. It's like the life cycle."