Five years ago, Stephen Cox portrayed an abusive husband in Alan Aychbourn's "A Woman in Mind," while Sheila Crossley made her Greenbelt Arts Center debut as the middle-aged wife he drives to madness.

The hatred and passion between their characters popped and crackled.

Two years later, the couple married in real life.

Community theaters such as the Greenbelt Arts Center long have brought people together. There are more than half a dozen community theaters in Prince George's County, places where residents of all ages can indulge their theatrical ambitions and bond with their neighbors--if not always matrimonially. For the rest of us, the community theaters provide affordable entertainment close to home.

"The community in general is very supportive of the theater," says Cox, president of the Greenbelt Arts Center.

For the last 17 years, community theater groups in Prince George's have been nurtured by Cecil Thompson, a theater specialist for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Thompson, who studied acting at Wayne State University, is a resource for county theater groups that need help planning a season, getting publicity or competing for state and county grants.

"I think [community theater] is healthy here," Thompson says. "They've provided a place for emerging artists and groups."

Given the plethora of troupes in the county, community theaters must work hard to distinguish themselves. The Greenbelt Players, for example, often tackle extremely ambitious projects in an effort to stand out.

One recent evening, the Greenbelt Players were rehearsing "The Forest," a romantic comedy written in the late 19th century by Russian playwright Alexander Nikolaevich Ostrovosky.

The cast congregated in a room where a table was scattered with leafy branches that the actors were busily gluing onto masks. In another room, director Grey Valenti planned the blocking for various scenes.

Fresh from a six-week course at Harvard University where she learned the Stanislavsky method of acting, Valenti hopes to achieve a level of professionalism not generally found in amateur theater. She recruited experts in the Alexander method of movement and commedia dell'arte to conduct workshops and a weekend retreat in Shenandoah National Park.

Just assembling the cast was an ambitious undertaking. When Valenti wasn't satisfied with the small group that showed up at the auditions, the 33-year-old NASA scientist plucked talent from every high school and community theater she could find.

"This is a difficult piece, and there are no small parts in the show," Valenti says. "I wanted every actor to be right for their character."

Her efforts resulted in a diverse cast, ages 15 to 64, who have day jobs ranging from scientist to minister, massage therapist to computer analyst.

Joe Pugliese, 15, was one of Valenti's star recruits. She discovered the diminutive sophomore at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where he played in a small rock band. "That's when my talent was unleashed," Pugliese says, "when the sleeping giant was awakened--or the sleeping dwarf, in my case."

Like most of the cast, Pugliese had been in several school plays. In this production, he plays the half-wit Bulanov. "I've played stupid characters in every play I've been in," Pugliese says. "One begins to wonder . . . "

Retired Red Cross executive and practicing Unitarian minister Sylvia Lewis plays Bodaeva, a rich neighbor. The 64-year-old has not acted since she was a teenager at an all-girl high school in England. "Since I've retired, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of things that I enjoyed in my youth," Lewis says in a very crisp British accent.

In addition to providing the opportunity to refine one's acting skills, community theater allows participants to interact with people in the neighborhood.

"It's a small group, and people get very close," says 15-year-old Bronwen Grebe, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School sophomore and already an eight-year veteran of community theater in Maryland. She plays a poor young houseguest in the production.

"By the end of the show," she says, "it's kind of hard to break it up."

Community Theaters In Prince George's County

The following community theaters are based in Prince George's County. Check local newspapers for audition notices or call for more information:

BOWIE PLAYHOUSE/BOWIE COMMUNITY THEATER

Theater hot line, 301-805-0219

Mailing address: P.O. Box 604, Bowie, Md. 20718

CHEVERLY YOUNG ACTOR'S GUILD

Joanie Horkler, 301-773-9671

Mailing address: 5801 Dewey St., Cheverly, Md. 20785

COLOURS

Jason Cook, 301-513-5700

Mailing address: Parkdale High School, 6001 Good Luck Rd., Riverdale, Md. 20737

PRINCE GEORGE'S LITTLE THEATRE INC.

Sarah Potter, 301-577-0357

Mailing address: 6016 Princess Garden Pkwy., New Carrollton, Md. 20784

GREENBELT PLAYERS

Kim Kash, 301-441-8770

Mailing address: 123 Centerway Rd., Greenbelt, Md. 20770

TANTALLON COMMUNITY PLAYERS

Charla Rowe, 301-292-2228

Mailing address: 12301 Firth of Tae Dr., Fort Washington, Md. 20744

FIRST PLAYERS

Deanna Lesche, 301-937-8714

Mailing address: First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, 6201 Belcrest Rd., Hyattsville, Md. 20782

HARD BARGAIN PLAYERS

Doris Sharp, 301-292-5665

Mailing address: 2001 Bryan Point Rd., Accokeek, Md. 20601

MAD PRODUCTIONS INC.

Gene Smith, 301-614-5250

Mailing address: Goddard Space Flight Center, 8800 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt, Md. 20771

CAPTION: Rosalie Daelemans, standing left, as Raisa gestures after shoving Karen Munson as Ulita while director Grey Valenti, right, watches a rehearsal of "The Forest."

CAPTION: Stephen Cox, right, as Schastlivtsev, Bill Hardy as Neschastlivtsev and Sylvia Lewis as a tree in a Greenbelt Players rehearsal of "The Forest."