With its production of the gay-themed play "Love! Valour! Compassion!" the Elden Street Players of Herndon have staked out new territory, proving local community-based theater can take risks and be just as compelling as any downtown theater company.

Elden Street's production of Terrence McNally's few-holds-barred look at gay male life and love is generally successful. In fact, under Christopher Dykton's sensitive direction, the play becomes more of a universal look at life and love, featuring people who happen to be gay.

Still, with its extensive and full nudity, frank language and uncompromising look at a group of gay male friends spending a series of weekends at a country house, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" is not the kind of play usually performed in suburban theaters. As opening night loomed, the subject matter drew more attention than the play's artistic qualities.

"What we did was to take a look at a season that presents a series of challenges, in which each of our plays is a Tony Award winner or recognized as a significant artistic achievement," said Rich Klare, the show's producer, as he watched the opening night audience file into Herndon's Industrial Strength Theatre. "This show fit right in with our desire to take chances, especially with the virtue of having a director of Christopher's reputation who wanted to do it, and we knew he could meet the challenge."

Klare said there has been little negative reaction to the groundbreaking nature of the play, adding, "If the play wasn't gay, if you took the same story and made it heterosexual, it would still be a well-written story about friendship, and no one would bat an eye."

However, Klare explained, the theater expected that some of its longtime regulars might not enjoy or approve of the production so they reached out to several gay organizations and advertised in gay-themed publications for the first time to fill seats.

Every seat was filled opening night. Only a handful of people left at the first of two intermissions in the 3-hour, 15-minute play. The cast was greeted with a resounding cheer at their curtain call, several people alternately dabbing at their eyes and applauding.

Instead of following a traditional story arc, McNally presents a portrait consisting of individual character studies that makes this a memory play, each of the characters acting as a narrator at times and frequently recounting the same anecdote from differing perspectives. Relationships and the search for love, artistic and professional struggles, dealing with the omnipresent specter of AIDS and the elastic strength of friendship are explored, provoking both laughter and tears.

McNally has recreated a microcosm of gay life in the '80s, when death loomed over all the love and laughter, which Dykton said "sears" him emotionally. The play is reminiscent of the work of Anton Chekhov, such as in "The Cherry Orchard," recently performed at Bethesda's Round House Theatre, where life is perceived to be delicate and undergoing transition even as it is observed.

Eight friends gather at the Upstate New York country home of Gregory (Jack B. Stein), an aging dancer and choreographer who dotes on Bobby (Michael Canter), his young and blind lover. Perry (Tom Flatt) and Arthur (Jason Greene) are a lawyer and an accountant, respectively, who have been together 14 years. ("We're role models; it's very stressful," Perry sniffs.) Buzz (Tom Witherspoon) is a flamboyant costume designer, a lonely jokester whose HIV has burgeoned into full-blown AIDS. He meets James (Matthew Randall), a gentle Englishman close to death, and they become a loving couple.

Randall does double duty, also appearing as the hateful John, Gregory's rehearsal pianist and James's emotionally repressed twin brother. McNally is not subtle, giving the twins who display completely opposite personalities the last name of Jeckyll, reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Acting as a freelance catalyst, although he is nominally in a relationship with John, is Ramon (Ryan Morra), a promiscuous and predatory dancer who enjoys flaunting his sexuality.

Buzz may be the central character, a man who admits he cries himself to sleep each night but constantly cracks "in" jokes about his obsession with musical theater, partly because it is obvious that losing him will leave an empty space in each of the lives and partly because of Witherspoon's vivid portrayal. One can hear echoes of Nathan Lane, who originated the role on Broadway in 1994, as Witherspoon manically flits about ("I had a nightmare they're reviving 'The King and I' with Tommy Tune and Elaine Stritch. It must be stopped!") and creates an indelible image with nothing, really nothing, but a frilly apron and a pair of high heels.

Flatt and Green both display the nuances of two people, Perry and Arthur, who have been together for a long time, celebrating their closeness but also trying to maintain separate identities. As Gregory, the dancer nearing the end of his career onstage, Stein has the most difficult role as he effectively shifts between bitterness toward his limitations and tenderness toward young Bobby. More attention may be focused on Randall's two roles, but the only similarity McNally has given the twins is their appearance, so the difference between James and John is more pronounced and requires less careful calibration than Stein's challenge.

Assessing Michael Canter and Ryan Morra, as Bobby and Ramon, is difficult. Neither of these young men has yet achieved a level of acting accomplishment on a level with the rest of the cast, and they rely primarily on their physical presence, with which both perfectly embody the roles. Enough of their characters' personalities come through that it is possible to overlook their often-artificial delivery of lines. That may be due to having a strong director, who has created an ensemble in which the group dynamic seems perfectly authentic. The sense of intimacy feels real, especially in the way one character's change in emotion can rapidly change the tenor of the entire group.

Dykton's only misstep is setting much of the action in what he says is the attic of the Victorian country home, which he describes as a fitting place to store bits and pieces of memory. With that in mind, set designer Dawn Chila has created a place that looks as if there was an explosion in a consignment shop. It's messy and sprawling, stuffed with odds and ends, and fairly unattractive. It is only partly successful in accommodating interiors and lakeside exteriors, and she and Dykton did not even attempt to use water for the skinny-dipping scenes.

These lives are rich and vibrant, and they belong in a dynamic living space more in tune with Gregory's successful station in life and sense of style. The events may be taking place as memories, but these are people we are meeting for the first time and quickly come to care about. It's hard to imagine any of them accepting being consigned to a dusty, dark attic.

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" will be performed through April 12 at the Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. April 6. For reservations, call 703-481-5930.

This play is intended for mature audiences and contains adult situations and language and nudity.

Portraying friends who have gathered at an Upstate New York country home are, clockwise from top left, Matthew Randall (in dual role as twins John and James), Tom Flatt (Perry), Tom Witherspoon (Buzz), Jason Greene (Arthur) and Ryan Morra (Ramon).