At first glance the house of the Touchstone Theatre Company looks like just another storefront.

Inside, however, is a thriving theater company. The walls of the lobby are adorned with spotlights and in the corner is a balcony holding the theater's perpetual audience: nine paper-sculptured people. Art appreciates art.

In the back of the lobby is a door leading to the 78-seat theater. And once inside, though the stage is only 50 feet from the streets of Arlington, nothing is further from the mind than traffic jams and red lights.

On stage this week is a set resembling any one of a million motel rooms. Tomorrow night the set will come to life when "Four Men From Annapolis" opens.

The play is the story of four men who endure the rigors of the U.S. Naval Academy together and how they come to view themselves, their country and their friendship 10 years after their graduation. They are confronted with a situation that threatens national security and must reevaluate loyalty to friends and country and their personal codes of honor.

The four friends get together for another friend's wedding. At the bachelor party, it is discovered that one of the four has been selling classified documents, and he tries to blackmail one of his academy friends into supplying specific information from the Pentagon.

The play was written by Northern Virginia resident Ron Wood, a graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis who served as a submarine officer for five years. It was while he was assigned to a sub, usually for two months at a time, that he took up playwriting. He has since studied at New York's Herbert Berghof Studio and at Washington's New Playwrights' Theatre School.

Touchstone founder and artistic director Michael Murphy said she knows she's taking a chance by producing a play by an amateur playwright. Murphy says she looks for serious plays that are "thought-provoking and engaging."

You will not see any musical comedies or traditional "family-oriented theater" at Touchstone. Murphy said Touchstone strives for an "emotional response" from the audience, so she looks for plays that above all are well-written and have something important to say.

Since Touchstone's beginnings, it has hosted 16 full-length plays, most of them unorthodox and controversial. In its first year the company did "A Hatful of Rain," Michael Gazzo's 1955 play about a junkie's personal hell, and also produced a play based on the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Touchstone did not begin with a preordained charter. In 1980, Murphy was teaching play-acting classes and was urged by her friends to produce a play. She said it began as a project to create more opportunities for her friends who were actors, directors and designers. She and her friends threw their skills together and did everything from painting flats and bolting down seats to public relations work and grant writing to help get the theater off the ground.

From the beginning, Touchstone, billed by Murphy as the first year-round professional theater company in Northern Virginia, has been artistically sound but financially insecure. The company has had to move several times in the last seven years and had to close down for 18 months to find a location. Murphy knew from the onset that starting a theater company was a difficult endeavor but she enjoys the process as well as the product.

The theater is at 3515 N. Fairfax Dr. in Arlington, across from the Virginia Square Metro Station. "Four Men From Annapolis" previews at 8 p.m. tomorrow and will run Thursdays through Sundays for the next six weeks. Performances are at 8 p.m., plus a 3 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets are $10 on Thursday and Sunday nights and $12 on Friday and Saturday nights.