While Christmastime can sometimes pummel you with overly sentimental shows, the new year brings with it demanding challenges for the Virginia theatergoer.

The month turns serious quickly with Fairlington Players' production of Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning " 'night, Mother" (Jan 15, 16, 22, 23, 24 {matinee}, 29, 30). A disturbing drama, it concerns a daughter telling her mother quite matter-of-factly that she is going to commit suicide. The mother, her disbelief turning to horror, tries desperately to stop the impending tragedy.

A good suspense is always bracing, especially if it has anything to do with the always twisting plots of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Little Theatre of Alexandria produces the Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (Jan. 15-Feb. 6) about curses and murders on the misty moors.

Familiar as the wisecracking has become from Neil Simon, his talent is at its best in "The Odd Couple." So good, in fact, that it became a mini-industry: a smash on Broadway, a hit movie and a long-running television show. It's to the play's credit that all versions were done with wit and a lot of well-deserved laughs. Springfield Community Theatre is presenting an '80s version with women playing the slob Oscar and the neatnik Felix (Jan. 22, 23, 29, 30, Feb. 5, 6, 12, 13).

The clever Wordstage Theatre plays with the language again with "The Devil's Lexicographer" (Feb. 5, 6, 12, 13). Using the writings of Ambrose Bierce, adapter Bob Ashby promises a work that is "wry, a little bitter and sassy."

Though the Oscar-winning movie got most of the ink, Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" (Feb. 5, 6, 12, 13, 14 {matinee}, 19, 20) was a Broadway phenomenon that won a Tony Award. Arlington Players tackles the often-bitter love story about a defiant deaf woman and the teacher she falls in love with.

Great Falls Players presents Neil Simon's comedy about the misadventures of a middle-aged lothario with "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (Feb. 19, 20, 26, 27, March 4, 5).

In the same comic vein, the Reston Community Players puts on Jean Anouilh's (adapted by Christopher Fry) "Ring Around the Moon" (Feb. 5, 6, 12, 13, 14 {matinee}, 19, 20). It's a comedy of manners about mistaken identities and misdirected emotions.

Port City Playhouse will perform one of the few musicals of the month in "The Apple Tree" (Feb. 12, 13, 19, 20, 21 {matinee}, 26, 27), three individual pieces about love.

And Vic Players presents Moss Hart and George Kaufman's classic "You Can't Take It With You" (Feb. 5, 6, 12, 13). The farce about the eccentric Vanderhoff family is a favorite of community theaters, but one that never seems stale.