Maybe Salt Lake Acting Company was spooked by the larger cast (and, consequently, higher production costs) for the previously announced "Zara Spook and Other Lures," but producers Allen Nevins and Nancy Borgenicht are hoping SLAC patrons will be lured into the theater for Tina Howe's off-Broadway hit, "Painting Churches."

The cast may be small, but what it lacks in size (just three performers), it more than makes up for in high-level visibility - Gail Hickman, Tony Larimer and Valerie Kittel, directed by David Kirk Chambers.For the actors and director, "Painting Churches" marks a long overdue reunion. They previously worked together (with co-producer Nevins) in a SLAC production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Unlike "Virginia Woolf," which tends to be hostile and rancorous at times, "Painting Churches" is a considerably gentler look at a family at a crossroads. But it's not nearly as sweetly sentimental as the 1993 made-for-TV version - "The Portrait," with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall.

Larimer noted during a recent interview that he watched 10 or 15 minutes of the TV version and " . . . I got the impression that it was warm and toasty. This play is touching, funny and sad."

Larimer will portray Gardner Church, a retired college professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, with Hickman as his outspoken but deeply devoted wife, Fanny. They're in the process of moving out of their longtime residence and into a smaller retirement home in Cotuit, a community overlooking Nantucket Sound.

Their daughter, Mags (Kittel), suddenly returns home, anxious to paint her parents' portrait before she opens an important exhibit at a Manhattan gallery. Mags soon discovers that her father's mental state is slipping.

Hickman is excited to be playing Fanny.

"She's crazy about her husband, but she's also a very outspoken woman and says what's on her mind - and sometimes it's not pleasant," said Hickman. "Fanny is tactless and has some very good lines."

Director Chambers, who is managing director of the Sundance Children's Theatre and Playwrights Lab (and a former founding member of SLAC), says "Painting Churches" is written "with the detail and instinct of a fine painting. By the end you have a beautiful family portrait, ranging from the very darks to the very lights."

John Wayne Cook has designed scenery, with Keven Myhre in charge of costumes.

- PERFORMANCES: Previews will be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Jan. 19-21, with regular performances beginning Saturday, Jan. 22, after which it will continue Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at both 2 and 7 p.m. through Feb. 20. Ticket prices range from $12 for the preview performances to $18.50 on weekends (and $25 for the opening night gala on Jan. 22). Admission for students is $6 (for whatever tickets are remaining 30 minutes prior to curtain) and $8 for senior citizens on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Salt Lake Acting Company is located at 168 W. 500 North.

Season subscribers may use their tickets for "Zara Spook" for performances of "Painting Churches" on the same nights. All other exchanges must be handled through the main Art-Tix outlet at the Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, at least 48 hours prior to show date. Single tickets for all SLAC shows may now be purchased from either the Capitol Theatre or the five Albertson's Art-Tix outlets. To contact Art-Tix, call 355-ARTS (2787).

- Ivan M. Lincoln