MAHANOY CITY, PA. -- Jay Serafin usually spends his time in church at the altar playing a sacred role. Recently, however, he has been logging several more hours a week in a church basement, rehearsing the part of a subversive 19th century coal miner.

Serafin, a Lutheran pastor at 27, is one of nearly three dozen amateurs, some of them first-time actors in this coal region who performed this week in a new play about the Molly Maguires, a secret sect of Irish miners reputedly responsible for a decade-long campaign of murder and sabotage during labor strife with their Welsh foremen here more than 100 years ago.

Ten of the Mollies, who took their name from a female rebel active in land tenure protests of the 1840s in Ireland, were hanged -- five in nearby Pottsville and five elsewhere in the region -- on a single day in June 1877. Their supposed exploits, and what some have called unjust trial, have been mythologized and debated ever since.

"The Molly Maguires to me had a glamorous, dark image," said Kelli Eberlein, 27, an aerobics instructor whose part in the production, called "Shooter's Gallery," has provided the longtime resident with a hands-on history lesson. "But being in this play has helped me learn what the facts or non-facts were. There's a lot of missing proof about the Molly Maguires."

If talk of the Mollies and mining is indigenous to Schuylkill County here in eastern Pennsylvania, Open Door Theater, which presented "Shooter's Gallery," is not. Founded by three Yale University classmates in 1988, Open Door is a nine-member traveling ensemble that pursues its theatrical dream on America's back roads, taking residence in rural towns with no live theater.

Most theater groups invite the world in to see the play; this one invites it in to be the play. Open Door has worked its way across Pennsylvania for 2 1/2 years, tapping into regional history for the flavor of its productions and staking out schools and Sunday services, bars and block parties, looking for recruits. By collaborating with local residents in everything from building sets to handling lights to filling actors' roles, Open Door hopes to nurture flourishing community theaters.

"It's an invitation for everyone to come out," said co-founder David Bradley, 24, the group's artistic director. "That's what the whole image of the name is."

In Schuylkill County, where the group set up shop in June with grants from state and local arts councils, Open Door found the kind of rich native lore and historical tension that lends itself naturally to drama.

"What we're trying to be about is empowering the impulse for theater, to create," Bradley said, "and to look at how America can really explore itself to its best theatrically, not in plays that are about New Yorkers but plays that can be about these smaller places."

Open Door attracted a cast and crew of more than 50 local residents last August to stage a coal country version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Shakespeare's tale of magic and romantic mischief was performed beside an abandoned tunnel entrance, and some of the language and character's names were recast. Tom Snout, Shakespeare's tinker, became "Flow Valve," a pump-factory worker, and Robin Starveling, the tailor, became "Hank Loader," a strip miner.

"Shooter's Gallery" is loosely based on one of the most sensational slayings associated with Mollies. But playwright Tom Byrn, 23, who culled his material from area archives and story-telling sessions with residents involved in mining, decided to place half of the action in the present. The script tells of a young woman whose return home to Schuylkill County in 1990 dramatizes current feelings about mining and the legacy of the Mollies.

"Nothing I had read about the Mollies had today's view and what it means to these people," Byrn said, "how they feel about the family and heritage that is still here."

As even a short drive through the county illustrates, mining is not a distant flicker in area history. Although most underground work has ended, surface mining remains active, and large patches of gouged earth create a striking landscape beside birch trees on flat ground and the low hills. Mining accidents and black-lung disease are part of life.

Yet to most cast members of "Shooter's Gallery," the experience of projecting themselves into the dangerous, desperate straits of a miner did not elicit bitterness but self-esteem.

"The way mining was done here was in many ways tragic," Serafin said. "People were killed, hurt, and they were just treated as numbers. To see that is not a pleasant thing. But also mining was king here . . . and the people still look at coal mining as a big thing, as a source of pride."

Many consider the Mollies and their violent tactics with a similar ambivalence. Laura Ayres, 24, the Open Door member who directed "Shooter's Gallery," noted that the company strove to create a play that neither glorified nor condemned the Mollies.

"We wanted to be true to the community, and the community feels it both ways," Ayres said. "You can understand why they {the Mollies} were driven to the point they were . . . {but} if this alleged organization really did exist, they were trying to exact revenge, not make life better."

Having closed the curtain on the Mollies, the Open Door packed up to look for a new home. The group thrives in rural Pennsylvania and enjoys a life style that Bradley likened to the "cart in the street" approach of medieval times when townsfolk flocked to see visiting merchants and entertainers. Open Door's living quarters have varied from wood cabins to condemned hotels to former convents, and members must search constantly for grant money and donations from local businesses.

Serafin said county residents do not "normally think of their lives as special or noteworthy as far as making productions out of them." But Open Door, he added, "brought a life and an enthusiasm . . . a sense that people here can really do anything. There are people talking about keeping theater groups going now, and I think that's going to happen."