JOE EGG -- At the Olney through Aug. 24

Olney Theatre's production of "Joe Egg," Peter Nichols's comedy of human horror, is as nearly flawless as the play itself.

It is a repeat with the same director and principal actor as the 1969 run, but it hardly can be called a revival, for this timeless work needs none. It will play fresh, tragic and funny so long as English is spoken.

Genius is a much-abused term in theater, but no lesser word can describe Nichols's accomplishment in making us laugh -- and not allowing us to cry -- over the efforts of a man and wife to live their own lives, and their life together, while sustaining the life of their vegetable daughter, "Joe Egg."

Moreover, the work is full of devices such as a play within the play and playlets within the play within the play, yet there is not a single cheap trick. Truth rings in every line, which is not the less but the more remarkable because the playwright is the father of multiplegic, epileptic, spastic and brain-damaged daughter.To be honest and unpitiful as well as engaging and entertaining about so corrosive a subject must approach the limits of art.

Few roles are so demanding as that of Stephen Joyce as Bri, the father. He plays half a dozen characters who are created and shed within the space of a breath, all in a play that reverses the normal theatrical convention by demanding not the willing suspension of disbelief but the unwilling retention of belief; we are not allowed to pretend it itsn't true. Joyce has mastered the role by submerging himself in it: through him the author speaks directly. It is a great performance that does not for a moment seem to be a performance.

Jill P. Rose as Sheila, the mother, is faced with more subtle but hardly less difficult task, because her role is more muted, of complementing Joyce, which she does selflessly. Her character must wax strong or fade weakly from moment to moment, according to which level of reality is being dealt with. She honors the material and the audience.

On opening night the first act probably was as nearly perfect as theater could be. Director James D. Waring has as usual achieved total unity by also taking upon himself the scenery design and lighting; both reflect his profound understanding of the work. Georgia Baker's costumes are so good they almost pass unnoticed, but whoever made up emily Kipp (playing Grace, Joe Egg's grandmother and formerly known as Kip McArdle) had better begin again.

The second act is slightly mechanical because it addresses the societal questions raised by the moral dilemma of total retardation. Judith McGilligan and Rudolph Willrich, as "friends" Pam and Freddie, combine well with Kipp to destroy the fragile framework Joe Egg's parents have built to shelter her and themselves from the world and each other. Lynn Steinmetz as Joe, who gets but a few seconds to play anything but a mass of mindless, tortured flesh, manages to make that moment vivid enough to last the rest of the evening.

The comedy of "Joe Egg," and there is lots of it, makes the pain not only bearable but more painful, which is the surest proof that "Joe Egg" deals truly with the human condition. Even if it weren't so cheerfully and brutally true it would be brilliant for the power of its language, which, whether flashing an image or skewering a weakness, is precise, rhythmic and riveting.