Why would anyone go to see a local theater group perform a play that is a current, major motion picture? Silver Spring Stage has the answer.

Quite simply, Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" is a better play than the movie.

The play is like concentrated orange juice: Only six characters, four tightly written scenes. Nothing worthwhile left out; nothing extra added. Each character fully contributes to developing the plot, the small-town ambience and the emotional impact.

The movie includes excess dogs, husbands and brothers, magnolias, hospital monitors, armadillo cakes and other nonessentials, all diluting the impact of the original play. Even if you enjoyed the movie, you probably will like the play better.

The action takes place in Truvy's Beauty Shop, where women of all generations come to let their hair down and share one another's lives. These friendships are from birth to death, and the only real sin here is keeping a personal crisis secret.

The primary story is that of M'Lynn and Shelby, mother and diabetic daughter, and of Shelby's marriage, her medically unwise decision to have a baby and the ensuing physical complications.

But most of the other characters have stories of their own. Clairee, recently widowed, turns businesswoman and explores the world outside her small home town. Ouiser (pronounced "Weezer"), town curmudgeon, discovers love, mellows and softens. Annelle, frightened and naive teenager, experiments with several lifestyles in trying to grow up. Only Truvy, whose wisecracking, earthy compassion (and beauty equipment) provides the supportive setting for the play, does not have a story.

The acting in this Silver Spring Stage production is uniformly excellent and the greatest strength of this "Steel Magnolias" is in the ensemble acting -- all six characters individually supporting scene after scene without tripping one another up. Credit goes to director Betty Xander for such a well-balanced, finely honed show.

The entire play is so consistently well executed that it seems almost unfair to single out a few moments. Yet, as Shelby, Michelle Pelletier's gracefully tough interpretation in the second scene deserves mention: Shelby softly demanding M'Lynn's support for her pregnancy is one of the most sophisticated of acting choices for a scene that could have been interpreted stridently.

For her part, Martha Cahion clearly conveys the complexities of M'Lynn, the caring mother who ultimately must transform her anguish and anger at her daughter's fate into some kind of blessing.

Any student of acting would be well advised to watch Nancy Nilsson's Ouiser. The loud, acerbic character, who continually brings laughs to the audience, is the easy part of the role. Note, though, her subtle shifts as she alerts both her friends and the audience that the old bird is softening, well before the lines tell us that her love life now flourishes.

Lauren Brett Perle's success in making Annelle real, and empathic, shows significant skill.

Provided with many brilliant little moments, but few large ones, Linda Woods's Truvy and Nancy Grosshans's Clairee smoothly bring out the background and leavening, which makes this a funny play that is more about families, life choices and friendships than hair curlers and tragedy.

"Steel Magnolias," Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Rd. Extended through Feb. 10. For reservations, call 593-6036.