Hunched over in his seat, glasses strung around his neck, UMBC theater director Sam McCready watches his students portray social insincerity in the style of Russian aristocrats. Momentarily, he stops the play so he can straighten a torso, adjust a hand gesture, turn out a foot.
Visual dialogue forms an integral part of this production. Alexander Ostrovsky's "The Diary of A Scoundrel" is a 19th century comedy about the art of keeping up appearances. Rarely performed in the United States, the play tells the story of an upwardly mobile charlatan who writes in a diary about the people he manipulates.
The actors, whose faces and hair are painted crimson and green and yellow and purple to match their period costumes, become stylized extensions of their characters. They move across the monochromatic set like elegant brush strokes, calligraphic expressions of their own vanities.
It's mesmerizing theater. So mesmerizing, in fact, that "The Diary of A Scoundrel" is being presented today and tomorrow in Washington as part of the prestigious American College Theater Festival.
Chosen from a field of roughly 900 university productions, the UMBC play was judged one of the eight best in the nation. This year is the fifth time the university's small theater department has been honored at this national festival -- more times than any other college in the country.
And it's the third time Sam McCready has directed a play there.
"This is like getting to the national playoffs," he says in a voice flowing with Irish inflections. "If this was a lacrosse team, there'd be victory parades: The place would be humming with it!"
The energetic director has become something of a campus legend during his 13 years at UMBC. Praised as artistic director of the late, lamented Shakespeare on Wheels summer theater, acclaimed for his acting with Maryland Stage Company, the university's professional troupe, McCready has also managed to write two books while teaching a generation of eager drama students.
Over the years, he has become adept at the art of coaxing actors deeply into their characters. And as he prepares for the Kennedy Center, he nudges his students to the brink of roles they haven't performed since January.
"This is a rehearsal, an exploration. It's not simply a repetition," he tells them. "It would be wonderful if we didn't know how each scene ended and played it that way! Wouldn't it be great if you could actually change the play through your actions? We've got the potential to do that in every scene."
The students devour his advice. Surprising themselves, taking chances, they pour themselves into what one festival judge called "some of the best theater I have ever seen. ... Intelligent, unpredictable and stylistically dangerous."
Afterward, they get hugs from this small man with huge, dark eyes. McCready is proud, enthusiastic, affectionate -- and not afraid to show it.
"Everyone says, 'You have such wonderful actors!' Well, practically what we have in the department is what you see on this stage," McCready says.
While many of the universities who compete in the festival can draw from an experienced pool of graduate students, UMBC's productions use only undergraduates. In fact, three of the actors in "Diary of A Scoundrel" are freshmen.
"I think we score so well because we have this totality of elements -- set, costumes, lighting -- in our productions: Everything comes together," McCready says. "I believe the set is an actor. It must move, and it must change. The costumes are a player, too."
He operates on a principle of collaborative creativity: Bill Brown's set design, Elena Zlotescu's costuming, Terry Cobb's lighting, Richard McCready's music. All intimately reflect the acting and vice versa. Students also work with lighting, makeup, costuming and sound until they become thoroughly invested in the production.
"I'm really interested in the development of the student through the process of productions," McCready says. "I never try to direct just one way of doing a performance. I take each student as far along the road [in a role] as I think is appropriate. And then, in the next production, I take them farther."
He established his career as a director in Ireland but says he refined many of his ideas while working with Shakespeare on Wheels, the traveling summer theater that fell victim to budget cut-backs last year.
"There seems no chance that it would come back -- and that's to be regretted in every possible way," he says.
Started by theater department head Bill Brown in 1984, Shakespeare on Wheels' productions were performed on a self-contained stage placed on the flatbed of a truck. The theater traveled throughout the state during the summer, bringing innovative, student-acted performances to non-traditional audiences.
Faced with demanding, restless people who often walked around during a show, McCready crafted productions that were simple, direct and spectacular: his Kabuki-styled Macbeth, for instance.
"I never think of myself as a risky person, and yet I have taken risks," he says. "What I do on productions just always seems to me to be the way to do it. On the other hand, coming over here to America was an incredible risk."
The youngest son of a shipyard worker in Belfast, McCready was drawn to theater as a child; he performed monologues for elementary school classmates and parts for BBC radio.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in fine arts and a master's in drama, he eventually became head of the drama department at Stranmillis College in Belfast while also serving as artistic director of the nearby Lyric Theatre, an institution he calls similar to Center Stage.
In 1983, he was invited to present "A Fantastic Voyage with W.B. Yeats" -- a play he wrote, directed and acted in -- at the White Barn Theater in Westport, Conn. During that time, he became intrigued with the intensity and eagerness of American actors and leaped into the unknown with a professorship at UMBC.
He joined a small theater department that has made its reputation by mining its international roots: McCready's colleagues include Xerxes Mehta, artistic director of Maryland Stage Company, and Zlotescu.
"Coming from Europe, I feel I have a responsibility to do European plays," McCready says. "I also like doing something that is totally fresh for people. In college, we have a particular responsibility to do new work, or take classical work that is not known and make it accessible."
At the moment, he is finishing an encyclopedia on W.B. Yeats, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet and playwright who was also the subject of his master's thesis.
McCready has acted and directed all of Yeats' plays and hopes to produce his "Deirdre" next at UMBC. At odd moments, between thoughts about "Diary of A Scoundrel," he says he finds himself imagining how best to present the mythical Irish story.
"It's like a hum, or a buzz -- I can see light, color and shapes," he says. "I thought the whole thing through the other night in a dream."
McCready relies upon inspiration -- visions that help him develop his work. At his home in Ireland, he would simply light a fire in the library, sit back in his favorite chair, close his eyes and await his always-obliging muse. In Baltimore, he still uses dreams and often flips through art books for creative tinder.
The director lives in "an Irish cottage" in Dickeyville with his wife, Joan, a drama teacher and head of performing arts at the Park School. One son studies voice at Towson State and performs as a tuba player; the other is an Anglican minister in Liverpool.
After performing in the Maryland Stage Company's production of "Tartuffe" this summer, McCready will return to Ireland to direct a workshop and bask in what he calls his country's "tremendous cultural renaissance."
He also hopes to rejuvenate his own spirit and restock his creative cupboard.
"I've a fear I can get beached here, cut off from the source of who I am," he says. "A play comes out of you and the culture you're part of. There's a danger that if you don't know enough about that culture, the material gets thinner and thinner as you try to draw on it."
As he travels through his 50s, however, McCready says he's more confident than ever about his own vocabulary of movement, his use of color and texture, his refinement of such favorite themes as rebirth and regeneration.
"I don't know exactly where this material will lead next, but I feel I know what I'm working with -- and I feel tremendously powerful with it," he says.
"At this moment, I'm at a good place."
'The Diary of A Scoundrel'
When: 7: 30 tonight and tomorrow
Where: Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center in Washington
Cost: Free. Tickets have already been distributed but some seats may become available on a first-come, first-served basis for those standing in line at the Terrace Theater 15 minutes before the show. Tonight's performance will also be interpreted in sign language.
Pub Date: 4/16/97