I hadn’t been in a theater that still in months.

Two young lovers-to-be drew near each other for the very first time–awkwardly, and fundamentally uncertain about the strange new thing their bodies were suddenly doing in the presence of each other. It was more than just acting. We were in the presence of a life change, witness to it, caught up in it.

And some of us were apparently forgetting to breathe while it occurred.

Let that describe one of a number of riveting moments in the StreetSigns Center production Dream Boy, an obvious early nominee for season superlatives, now showing at UNC’s Swain Six studio.

Guest director Joseph Megel crafts from the Jim Grimsley novel by the same name that rarest of things, an honest document on coming of age. He is greatly abetted in this task by Eric Rosen’s sharp and lyrical stage adaptation. Rosen here has amazingly preserved the music and the meter of Grimsley’s prose without sacrificing the theatrical enterprise to it–a flaw seen far too frequently, particularly in adaptations of Southern literature.

The work of the strongest ensemble of the season thus far pulls us into a world where religion, sexuality, alcohol and violence are circumscribed only by the verdant mysteries of the unexplored forests surrounding a small eastern North Carolina town.

Arguably, the endgame in Grimsley’s novel does veer back and forth between worst-case and best-case scenarios for Nathan and Roy, two boys exploring their sexuality in a small agrarian town a decade or two back. And in the condensed time we have with the pair, issues of Roy’s one-sidedness, manipulation and control in this relationship wind up so foregrounded, that the audience might well ask at points, “what’s love got to do with it?”

There are also the smallest of missteps in detail in places–a Southern Baptist preacher of the period wearing a Roman collar, for example. Still, despite these issues, and the possibly unearned optimism of the story’s resolution, Dream Boy is likely to ring true on a number of levels for those who “come from around here.”

Under Megel’s direction, Chris Chiron darkly blooms into what is clearly the most affecting performance of his career. His portrayal of Nathan’s father is fearsome, as a xenophobic, abusive alcoholic who has twisted the scripture of the New Testament into something uniquely Southern and sadistic. Chiron and Megel’s accomplishment here is a study in darkness, and an effective demonstration of what might be called the economy of terror.

Both remind us that once abuse has entered a family, very little is required to maintain it. A long silence, a long look or a few words uttered in a low-pitched voice, are all that’s needed to evoke what has happened before, and what may occur again at any time. Guest artist Elisabeth Lewis Corley equally convinces as the mother in this unhappy family.

But Alex Bonner’s rendition of Nathan is painful, honest and frighteningly real. His Nathan carries his trauma and awkwardness with him, bearing it as best he can. What resolution he and Roy negotiate seems unlikely and tentative at best. Still, at the end of such storms as we experience here, even the briefest of respite comes as welcome. Thin hope, at play’s end, is still hope nonetheless–and thus a great deal lighter than what has come before.

A few moments after the Mallarme Chamber Players began the sprightly fourth movement of Mozart’s string quartet, “The Hunt,” on a lovely September evening last year, three more soloists joined them on stage. True, the loose-fitting clothes of the late arrivals were decidedly less formal than the basic black of the quartet’s evening-wear ensemble. Then there’s the fact that Carrie Barnett, Rachel Kiel and Elena Steponaitis–percussionists, you’d almost have to call them, under the circumstances–actually elected to wear their instruments throughout the movement.

It’s understandable: They couldn’t have added much to the performance if they hadn’t. Not since the featured soloists’ instruments in this evening’s rendition of Mozart were tap shoes.

In this case, old-style hoofing to classical music is not as great a stretch as it might first seem. Not for the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble and the Mallarme contingent, two groups who have been bending genres–and defying expectations–with some regularity for years now in the region.

The tap ensemble celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend with concerts at the Carolina Theatre.

Mallarme artistic director Anna Ludwig Wilson recalls that the two groups got together because Robin Vail, their administrative assistant at the time, was a tap dancer. “We were saying we were interested in doing interdisciplinary work, when she said ‘OK, how about tap?’”

“I had just seen Amadeus again,” Wilson says, “and in that movie Mozart is such a sprightly character, full of jokes and pranks, of course he would approve. It sounded like a winner to me.”

After contacting ensemble director Gene Medler and trading Mozart CDs for awhile, the two agreed upon Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the allegro from “The Hunt.” And last September, a chamber music concert had several extra soloists during two works–a move that provoked some controversy among some of the chamber music crowd. “I think it’s because it was Mozart,” Wilson says. “But the dancers were such good communicators and their rhythm was impeccable. I think tap dancers are most aware of rhythmic precision in music, more than ballet or modern dance. They knew every subdivision of the beat.”

For his part, Medler recalled a previous collaboration with Mallarme, several years ago. After being planted in the audience, he and Michelle Dorrance danced on stage to a latin composition. Lane Alexander, a Chicago-based dancer, was the featured soloist for another work in that concert: a section from Morton Gould’s “Tapdance Concerto.”

Still, hoofing to Mozart was a first for Medler and the artists in his ensemble. “It’s like this conversation between the instruments,” he says. “It’s just perfect for the dancers to interpret it the same way. I sort of outlined the way the three dancers should come in and go out. They took it from there and they did a great job.”

The ensemble recreates “The Hunt” this weekend, in a show replete with guest stars and turns by company alumni. Grady Bowman was one of the company’s recent stars. Now he’s in his junior year at North Carolina School of the Arts, but regional audiences saw him recently on stage in North Carolina Theatre’s production of West Side Story. He returns with a work based on Tom Waits’ song “Big in Japan.”

Diane Walker, who starred in Black and Blue on Broadway, also turns up this weekend, as does company alumna Michelle Dorrance, who regularly performs these days with Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk creator Savion Glover. On the same note, Savion’s mother, Yvette will also be on hand to host the show, “having taken the company under her wing several years ago,” Medler notes. “In many ways, it’s a family affair.”

But times are changing for a regional institution now literally on the verge of turning pro. After considerable soul-searching–and more than a little industry research–this was the year Medler and his troupe sought and found professional management.

In some ways, it’s something of an afterthought by now for a company that has already wowed audiences in yearly summer tours across North America and Europe. After their Carolina Theater dates, the Ensemble hits Rio, St. Louis, Chicago and New York this summer, and Heidelberg this fall–all before their gigs with Siegel Artists Management start coming in.

“It’s unprecedented that a youth ensemble would elbow its way into the professional ranks,” Medler notes, “but it was clearly the next step.”

He calls the Carolina Theatre show “really a homecoming for us. It’s our way of saying ‘Hey, this is who we are and this is the community that has supported us through it all.’ So we indulge ourselves a little bit with it. It’s more like family reunion than ‘let’s make this as slick as we can.’ It’s our way of saying thanks for getting us here.” EndBlock