Story: Who calls the shots for political candidates? The staff for a high-profile Democrat running for president in 2008 includes savvy campaign veteran Paul Zara and his hot-shot subordinate, press secretary Stephen Bellamy, as well as eager assistant Ben and intern Molly.

They’re all in Iowa, where their candidate is tracking in the polls to win that state’s primary, a bellwether for the presidential campaign. Stephen, youthful and cocky, is feeling his oats as he revels in his achievements in the presence of New York Times reporter Ida Horowitz. She wants to do a profile piece on Stephen, but he prefers to wait a bit and concentrate on his good feelings.

Stephen is occasionally annoyed by Ben’s own enthusiasm, although he observes that Ben reminds him of himself just a few years earlier. Preoccupied with his latest campaign strategy, he barely notices the young intern bringing him some needed documents until Molly introduces herself. She’s bright, energetic and attractive, so Stephen belatedly invites her to have a drink with him. She says later that night will work better for her and they arrange a date at the hotel bar.

While fielding phone calls Stephen is surprised to hear the voice of Tom Duffy, campaign strategist for his candidate’s chief competitor. He accepts Duffy’s invitation to lunch, where Duffy offers Stephen a role on his own staff. Although expressing outrage that Duffy would consider Stephen susceptible to switching alliances, he does stick around long enough to hear the details.

But what has he already done? Will word leak out to Paul, a stickler for loyalty, that Stephen has been seen with the enemy? Can Stephen head off any potential controversy or personal calamity by going directly to Paul, or should he leave well enough alone?

Or is too late for that now? And what should he make of Duffy’s assertion that his candidate has rigged the poll results and that Stephen’s candidate is actually about to lose, not win, the Iowa presidential primary? That would be a major crisis not only for his candidate but for Stephen as well. Who really has the upper hand in this political tug-of-war?

Highlights: Farragut North, a fascinating political cautionary tale written by John Burroughs alumnus Beau Willimon, is a compelling and provocative story as told by director Wayne Salomon and his smart cast in the current St. Louis Actors’ Studio presentation at Gaslight Theater.

Other Info: Willimon adapted his story for the movie, Ides of March, an ominous political film starring and directed by George Clooney. The play has noticeable differences from the flick but is just as interesting in its own right, especially in this taut, terrific production steered by Salomon.

The esteemed director coaxes believable, harrowing performances led by Spencer Sickmann as the self-assured Stephen, who doesn’t know how to react when he’s placed in campaign combat with savvy veterans such as the manipulative Paul or the conniving Duffy. It’s sobering to watch Sickmann’s Stephen self-destruct with alarming alacrity once the character leaves his comfort zone.

There’s accomplished work as well by Peter Mayer as the tired but wily Duffy, who’s been around the political block a time or four and knows how to play a youngster, even one as shrewd as the 27-year-old Stephen. Without uttering a word, one can see where Mayer’s Duffy is heading with his next thought or action, well ahead of the maneuverable Stephen.

David Wassilak’s Paul is cold, calculating and a heck of a lot smarter than Stephen, who is blinded by his own early success, realizes to the prodigy’s detriment. There’s also smooth, stylish work by Hollyn Gayle as Molly and Joshua Parrack as Ben, two kids who aren’t as naive as Stephen thinks they are and are ready to parlay their friendships into opportunities if Stephen turns cruel.

Shannon Nara shows the tested wisdom of campaign reporter Ida, who likes Stephen but has a job to do nonetheless, while Luis Aguilar adds to the suspense as a waiter desperate to improve his family’s lot who sees Stephen as a beacon for the future, even if the communications director has clay feet.

Patrick Huber’s scenic design shows the grimy underbelly of various Iowa hotels, restaurants and bedrooms, accentuated with his equally harsh lighting. Andrea Robb’s costumes dress the characters in garb befitting their respective stations and Salomon’s sound design includes raucous jazz motifs as well as a contemporary (well, 20th century) classic ending.

Farragut North is the name of a subway stop in Washington, D.C. The characters in Willimon’s fable, based on his own experiences, are traveling a subway train to different destinations, not all of them promising. It’s an exhilarating ride for audiences, though, who can experience St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s engrossing interpretation.

Play: Farragut North

Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle

Dates: February 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24

Tickets: $30-$35; contact 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Patrick Huber