Whenever characters are this robust and the direction this finely detailed, rest assured, we do take names. So should you. So jot ’em down, because even if you missed David Shouse’s directing debut in a too brief, four-night run of Jack and Jill last week at N.C. State, believe me, you’re going to want to know the next time he helms a show. His Thompson Studio Theater triumph (which closed Saturday night) puts him squarely on my don’t-miss list for future work.

This region, so gifted with actors–including Ryan Brock and Susan Huckle, who both notably anchored the title roles in this Jane Martin drama–still lags behind when it comes to the similarly gifted directors needed to develop them. Fresh blood in this area of practice is always particularly welcome news. The last time a newcomer demonstrated such a grasp of characterization and drama, budding director J. Chachula was holding our feet to the fire in Cindy Lou Johnson’s psychological drama Blesse.

That should help you remember the name.

Martin’s savvy and sophisticated 1996 script examines the body blows contemporary culture has given the whole concept of romantic love. It does so in a cradle-to-grave–and then beyond–analysis of what takes its place in the relationship of two smart, young, rising professionals who are offered as an Everyman and Everywoman for postmodern times.

Things don’t look that rosy from the couple’s first encounter in a bookstore, when Jack babbles his way through the verifiably worst pick-up line in recorded history: “I, Jack, would like to meet you, female person, for…umm, non-threatening relating. Why? Because a while ago I lost some serious relating, and I really miss the feeling. So, severe and transcendent beauty, how about a cup of coffee…?”

(A note to novices: Don’t try this at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.)

Jill’s not exactly a prize herself. After being burned once, badly, in a relationship, she sharpened the edges of her intellect to keep everyone at bay. These days Jill apparently embraces the anger of her feminist socioeconomic and political critique–in order not to possibly have to embrace another human being. Her current philosophy on love? There’s no such thing.

Can this relationship be saved? Forget that noise; the real stumper here is how such a couple ever gets off the ground in the first place.

And yet they do. The two begin to negotiate issues involving trust, identity and equality in relationships, before foundering on the jagged rocks farther from shore.

Ryan Brock’s performance here as Jack is an achievement in humor and vulnerability. His character experiences real joy and searing loss before the evening’s close, in scene work and breakaway monologues delivered to the audience.

Since, even with a sharp intellect running interference, Jane’s emotional bandwidth is considerably narrower, Susan Huckle has the harder task in making Jill believable, and then sympathetic. Under Shouse’s direction, Huckle’s Jill will never compromise until at last she wins her freedom.

Though Martin’s script has laughs aplenty, it ultimately takes us on a very harrowing journey in its stark depiction of the societal forces that actually pose the greatest threat to modern families. A very late clue to the Bush administration: None of them have anything remotely to do with gay marriage.

Even though Shouse over-embellishes the roles of scripted on-stage dressers who facilitate scene changes, in this show these actors and this director clearly deserve a lot more than a one-shot weekend in a studio. I hope we get to see them all again–and sometime soon.

The other get-acquainted session of last week saw Self Induced Theater Project’s first production, Brilliant Traces at Durham’s equally new Common Ground Theatre.

If Ann Meilahn’s modest, effective Alaskan cabin set (which came within inches of the front row) is any indication, Common Ground’s intimate black box space is really going to favor the psychological, up-close, small-ensemble dramas and comedies that a number of the region’s independent groups engage in.

Still, a consumer’s note seems appropriate: The hard plastic seats in the first three of the four banked audience rows will likely make intermissionless shows longer than an hour the same challenge to sit through that Chapel Hill’s Deep Dish Theater endured before retrofitting their folding metal chairs with foam cushions.

The first outing by Self Induced Theater gets a similarly positive endorsement–but one with a couple of caveats still in the mix.

By now, Roman Pearah and Nicole Quenelle have firmly defined themselves among the forefront of a younger generation of notable stage artists. Audiences know by now that an evening with these two will not be wasted.

But when their script–and at least some of their direction–is not as strong, we notice.

Historically, playwright Cindy Lou Johnson has crafted strong characters in tense situations, and this story of two people who have both run as far away as possible from their own lives sets us in promising territory.

But her script seems nearly as unbalanced as the characters inside it. Rosannah, a very different kind of runaway bride, is so vivid a character that it’s easy to believe she’s wrested control of the script from the playwright. Her fragmentary story of escape defines someone not just neurotic, but delusional: too fundamentally crazy–and paranoid, and hostile–for us to easily invest in, sympathize with, or believe.

By comparison, Henry, her foil and companion in this remote cabin, likes to seal himself off in an Alaskan whiteout in between his multi-week shifts on a deep-sea oil rig. Talk about a guy with boundary issues.

But if director Lauren Walker lets Rosannah off-leash–and given the character’s velocity, who could believably do otherwise?–we still must question Walker’s vision of Rosannah’s unwilling host.

For Henry wants us to know, at various points, that he’s “in a state … all messed up … standing here about to explode.” One problem with this production: We hear this state much more clearly in the words than we ever see it in Pearah’s character.

Perhaps the director believed she had to choose one character for us to sympathize with, and so minimized an exploration of all the things that potentially make Henry just as alien (and alienating) as Rosannah.

But had two grotesques, neither of whom had our vote of confidence, met on Johnson’s stage, the result might have given us less security–but more drama. Maybe so, maybe not–particularly since Johnson’s text stubbornly clings to its few secrets, with nowhere else to turn, long after her other choices have diminished our interest.

As things stand, Quenelle memorably ranges the stage in wounded and incoherent outrage, while Pearah comes off as a nice enough guy.

Which is why it’s hard not to feel that a side has been chosen for us here, in what likely is a compromised vision of a possibly unresolvable script.

We close with reports of a soft landing from Lissa Brennan, the Dog and Pony Show artistic director who recently relocated to Pittsburgh. She’s been cast as dubious heroine Beatrice-Joanna in the English language premiere of Dogface, an adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s revenge drama The Changeling by French director Dan Jemmett. Jemmett, the son-in-law of famed British director Peter Brooks, will take the production to Madrid, with a possible London production in the offing, after its Pittsburgh dates, March 10-April 3. For more info, check this Web site: quantumtheatre.com.

****1/2 Nixon’s Nixon , Manbites Dog Theater–The darting eyes beneath the famous furrowed brow and that uniquely baleful smile can only mean one thing: The hungry ghost of Richard Nixon walks among us once again in this revival of Russell Lees’ rueful, dark historical comedy, the smash hit of last fall. Though both Derrick Ivey (as Nixon) and Carl Martin (as Henry Kissinger) have made a number of discoveries since we saw them last, Ivey’s performance last Friday seemed to dial down just a bit the desperation and out-and-out voracity that made his initial interpretation so astounding. Last fall we never forgot that it was always Resignation Eve, and there was always an agenda–and very little time. A word of caution against an actor grown perhaps a bit too comfortable with a show?

The real news in this reiteration is Carl Martin’s considerable development in the role of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. If Nixon’s edge has marginally dulled in this remounting, Kissinger’s has sharpened: He’s now much more an equal in the chess match, and cunningly manipulates assorted reminiscences in which the inebriated pair enact encounters with Brezhnev, Golda Meir and Mao.

Meanwhile, Ivey’s character prowls the Lincoln Sitting Room, searching for an exit strategy that does not involve impeachment or resigning. As he plays card after card to lure Kissinger to his side, both characters explore, in monstrous detail, the extremes to which the powerful will go to maintain power. A scenario beyond mere brinksmanship makes naughty, drunken schoolboys of the two. They’re laughable–up until the moment we remember that a red telephone sits quietly on a desk just down the hall, waiting for them to decide the fate of the world.

Though Nixon’s late-found conscience still seems largely hypothetical, this production can still make us nostalgic for a time when ambition and power had clearly definable limits, ones that were enforced not only by robust judicial and legislative failsafes, but by the will–and the voice–of the people. The differences between that time and this only sharpen the wicked edges of Lees’ dark little comedy. (Thursday-Sunday, through Jan. 29. $15-$9. 682-4974.)