Helen Hayes has long borne the title of the First Lady of the American Stage, but maybe it's time the honor was shared with Eva Le Gallienne. Playing an 82-year-old matriarch, Le Gallienne, who just happens to be 82 herself, opened at Baltimore's Morris Mechanic Theatre Tuesday night in "To Grandmother's House We Go." So much for the sorry myths and sad realities of old age.

Le Gallienne has wit, intelligence and dignity. In a face serene with beauty, her eyes twinkle with youth. Although over the course of the evening she is confronted with a houseful of grandchildren, now grown up but no less neurotic for that, their traumas leave her unruffled. Unruffled, note, is not unconcerned. Grandie, the character she is playing, has always offered the solace of her creaky but comfortable Connecticut home, whenever her progeny were in emotional or financial trouble. And there is every evidence that she will open her door once again. But she has lived too long not to be able to stand back and savor the ironies of the situation this time.

Grandie believes that true anguish should be tucked away in the attic, not displayed in the front parlor. She subscribes to discipline, emotional reserve and not wearing slacks to Thanksgiving dinner. If she inhabited a canvas, it would probably be one of Norman Rockwell's. Her three grandchildren, all of them in varying throes of divorce, alcoholism or mental unrest, have clearly opted for a Jackson Pollock action painting instead. Surveying the wreckage of their lives, Grandie responds with a sigh. But in Le Gallienne's remarkable performance, a sigh is understanding and disapproval, grace and impatience.

She can tap the television set she rarely watches, and the passing gesture alone conveys her low opinion of the new morality that has overtaken the world, not to mention her own brood. She may give in to the pain in her ankles, asking the dutiful family maid to give them a quick massage. But that is a rare indulgence. That and reading the obituaries. "Oh good!" Le Gallienne exults, scanning the death notices. "Young ones!" There's nothing smug about the chirp -- just the understandably delighted acknowledgement that she, at 82, is a special being.

If only the play were as special. Joanna M. Glass' dialogue, however, is more the stuff of novels than drama, and while she writes with intelligence, she also writes with studied artifice. "Listen, siblings," shouts Beatrice, the bitterest of the grandchildren, as yet another squabble breaks out. "The air is thick with self." In her attempt to define the differences between a generation that knew who it was and a present-day generation that "can't stop asking questions," Glass has boxed in her characters with words and more words. The precise literary control they exercise over their feelings tends to belie the sense of helplessness they are supposedly experiencing. The supporting performers are not untalented (Ruth Nelson as the faithful servant, and John Beal as Grandie's brother, are quite good, in fact.) But the impression remains: These creatures are talking about a family drama, explaining it endlessly to themselves and others. At no time does the drama really assert itself on its own independent terms.

So we are left with Le Gallienne to carry us through the troubled weekend, and she very nearly does. "All you needed in my day," observes Grandie crisply, was "the three B's -- beauty, brains and breeding." The formula still holds, if Le Gallienne is any proof. Add the finely detailed craft of an actress who has spent more than six decades on the stage, and you have nothing short of a phenomenon.

TO GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE WE GO. By Joanna M. Glass. Directed by Burry Fredrik; set, Ben Edwards; lighting, Paul Everett; costumes, Danajean Cicerchi; with Eva LeGallienne, Lori March, John Beal, Harriet Harris, Sofia Landon, Jennifer Sternberg, Stephen Bradbury. At the Morris Mechanic Theatre through Dec. 26.