"Lillian" is an elegant one-woman show.

Frankly, the adjective would never have occurred to me beforehand. The "Lillian" in question is playwright Lillian Hellman -- a strong, feisty, outspoken woman if ever there was one -- and elegance is hardly the quality you'd expect of a play that puts her on stage for a couple of hours and lets her sort through her "jungle of memories." Yet, without ever chastening Hellman's independent mind or censoring her fierce individuality, "Lillian," which opened a three-week run last night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, has the lean and revealing clarity of fine photography.

Most one-person shows operate the other way -- multiplying the colorful anecdotes and the quaint idiosyncrasies and hoping that the mere accumulation of impressionistic detail will do the trick. "Lillian" is digging for the essentials. Everyone involved in this endeavor -- playwright William Luce, actress Zoe Caldwell, director Robert Whitehead and set designer Ben Edwards -- wants to get down to bedrock, which is to say the woman's formidable character.

Dressed in a handsome gray suit, a strand of pearls around her neck, her hair styled into a beauty-parlor flip, Caldwell bears a surprising resemblance to Hellman. She's clearly mastered the art of smoking, as Hellman practiced it -- cigarette held aloft at her finger tips, as if to keep the world at bay. But Caldwell strives for more than physical kinship: She's going for the guts. And in this bold, brave performance, she gets them.

Hellman's fame stemmed from such plays as "The Children's Hour," "Watch on the Rhine," "The Autumn Garden" and "Toys in the Attic." But Luce is only marginally interested in Hellman the writer. It's the woman who intrigues him -- her integrity, her towering strength and the vulnerability it didn't always mask. Leaving to others the revisionist thinking, he has distilled his script from three of Hellman's autobiographical works -- "An Unfinished Woman," "Scoundrel Time" and "Pentimento." "Lillian" is Hellman in her own words.

Luce has, however, hit upon a way of giving autobiography the urgency of drama. The time is 1961 and the place is the waiting room of a New York hospital, designed by Edwards with the surrealistic starkness of a de Chirico canvas. Just off stage, detective writer Dashiell Hammett, Hellman's companion for 30 troubled, often alcohol-drenched years, lies dying of inoperable cancer. As her vigil extends into the night, Hellman struggles to come to terms with "the conflicted patterns" of her past. And like most people, waiting out the long minutes in death's antechamber, she feels compelled to talk to someone: in this case, the audience.

Much of her musing is taken up with her childhood in New Orleans -- the tall, strapping father who was her first love; the black nurse Sophronia, who instilled in her a sense of rectitude that lasted a lifetime; the dotty relatives, "so full of open ill will," who will make you think of the connivers in "The Little Foxes." She tells about running away from home, right smack into the bawdy district of New Orleans. And she remembers the furniture-smashing turbulence of her relationship with Hammett and how displeased he was when she first called him "a Dostoevski sinner/saint."

In the second act, her thoughts wander to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts, "who played with the law as if it were a batch of fudge they enjoyed after the pleasure of their nightly pillow fight," and she finds herself reliving her hour of testimony before the witch hunters. But all of this -- the ridiculous and the sublime -- is colored by the growing panic in her heart. Even the humor, of which there is a good deal, has an edge, because it is being offered up in the leering face of death.

When she was a child, Hellman often took refuge in the branches of a fig tree -- "heavy, solid, comfortable and it wanted me," she explains. It was there she experienced what she came to call "the ill hour" -- not so much a physical sickness as "an intimation of sadness, a first recognition that there was so much to understand that I might never find my way." In "Lillian" she is an adult, laden with honors, but she is experiencing the ill hour all over again.

Caldwell gives a virtuoso performance, so nakedly honest that there seems to be nothing between us and her soul. The play requires her to impersonate many of the people -- some famous, some not -- in Hellman's life, and to each she imparts the precise tone and gesture that make them instantly vivid. Quite the funniest segment is her recollection of a squabble between her parents on the opening night of "The Children's Hour" -- her mother maintaining Lillian was "the sweetest-smelling baby in New Orleans"; her father claiming quite the contrary, that the honor was rightfully his. With an astonishing economy of means, Caldwell turns a tiff into a comic epic.

Like any fine piece of art, her acting is stripped of every extraneous detail. No energy is wasted in useless embroidery. What she shows us is what counts. Nothing more. Nothing less. Luce and Caldwell do not pretend that Hellman was anything less than a classy lady. The perfectly controlled grace with which they advance that conviction -- true or not -- makes "Lillian" the elegant evening it is.

Lillian, by William Luce. Based on the autobiographical works of Lillian Hellman. Directed by Robert Whitehead. Set, Ben Edwards; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Thomas Skelton. With Zoe Caldwell. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Dec. 14.