GERTRUDE STEIN GERTRUDE STEIN GERTRUDE STEIN, by Marty Martin. Directed by Milton Moss; set, Anne Gibson; lighting, Ruth Roberts and David Lee Crist; costume, Garland Riddle. With Pat Carroll.

At Arena's Kreeger Theater through Oct. 18.

For most of us, Gertrude Stein was a voluminous woman who wrote about roses being roses being roses, smoked black cigars, lived in Paris with Alice B. Toklas and befriended most of the artists who revolutionized 20th-century art.

She is, of course, all that in "Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein," the remarkable one-woman show which opened a three-week return engagement last night in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater. But she is more, too. As Pat Carroll plays her, which is to say with utter persuasion, she is a woman with a headful of ideas.

Indeed, she can scarcely keep still with the excitement of what she is going to say next. Dry as ideas may be in some heads, in this show they are great living entities that leap and cajole, turn somersaults and back flips and generally carry on with perfect impudence and perfectly good sense at the same time.

The format is simple. It is 1938 and Gertrude and Alice are about to be evicted from their longtime abode at 27 Rue de Fleurus. While Alice naps unseen in an adjoining room, Gertrude sets about packing up the Matisses and the Gauguins on the wall and the stacks of books on the floor. Or thinks about packing. And then very soon finds herself thinking about the people and conversations that have animated the room.

The text by Marty Martin, drawn mostly from Stein's own words, is rich with anecdotes about the celebrated and eccentric lives that came and went in Stein's salon. There is the story about the famous spinach banquet Picasso threw one night for Douanier Rousseau (better, though, that you hear it from Carroll, who brings true epic gusto to the tale). There are stories about the young Hemingway and his phobias, Isadora Duncan and her pretensions, and Marie Laurencin and her drinking. Since Stein tended to reject order in her conversation, just as she rejected punctuation in her writing, the memories are a bit helter-skelter.

But invariably they come full circle, and in the meantime we are privy to some intoxicating thoughts on art, America, conformity, cubism, friendship, genius and several dozen other heady topics. The ideas never announce themselves as ideas, however. They are just something that Gertrude wants to share with us -- has to share with us. Her urgency is that of the lip-smacking corner gossip, but she is smacking her lips over the whole curious and puzzling business of being alive.

Even if you have never heard of Gertrude Stein, I suspect the evening will still carry a full theatrical charge. It is, you see, also a play about a woman finding herself. Gertrude frankly acknowledges that it was her brother Leo who introduced her to the Paris art world, who acted as the magnet and who, with his analytical mind, initially presided over the Saturday night gatherings at the Rue de Fleurus. But Gertrude, it turns out, possessed a quality lacking in her older brother: the capacity to grow. Quite the nicest moments in the play are the accounts of her awakening realization that she was a unique, special being, quite capable of seeing and interpreting the world on her own terms.

Carroll's performance is witty and alert, but its true grandeur, I think, resides in a line she utters early on. Talking of her arrival in Paris, she says, "Everything was beginning to be beginning for me." Not just beginning. Beginning to be beginning. It's as if she had found a tense more immediate than the present. Carroll's acting imparts a similar impression. Although the actress is rummaging her way through the past, she has you believing that you are there at the very creation of her life. Events long gone are born before your eyes.

Carroll takes you with her into a dusty art gallery, where the Cezannes have yet to be discovered. She insists that you meet her friends and even her enemies. She shares her fondness for cakes and cigars and herrevulsion for work of any sort. But mostly she catches you up in the dazzling workings of her mind.

"Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein" doesn't just fill a stage. It infuses a whole theater with the electricity of a genuine original.