"WOMEN AND WATER" is chapter one of the windy saga of Lydie Breeze, heroine of John Guare's unfinished Civil War tetralogy. At Arena Stage, Guare's ambitious epic is pumped up with an excess of energy and effects, all dissipated by a sprawling lack of discipline in the writing and performances.

Reading from her journal, remarkable Lydie Breeze recounts to us -- her "unborn children" -- her thickly populated "adventures in the War of the Rebellion." A Yankee nurse at the play's outset, Lydie has two pressing tasks: to obtain medical supplies for the wounded soldiers at Cold Harbor, Va.; and to unearth the mutinous, murderous secret of her father's ship, the Gardenia. Guare runs Lydie far afield, back and forth in time, before she finds her oddly unsurprising solutions.

Lydie's quest reminds one of nothing much as Dorothy's in Oz -- she even finds her scarecrow, tin woodsman and timid lion in three unlikely compatriots who decide to chuck the war and form a Utopia with her. (That story is continued in "Lydie Breeze" and "Gardenia," produced in tandem last year at New Playwrights' Theater.)

Directed by Doug Wager, "Women and Water" is a fragmented, pellmell succession of images of the war. Lydie is reading from her diary, then -- boom! -- we're in the thick of a bloody battlefield; then on a steamship, in a Nantucket dining room, at a minstrel show . . .

Guare has excused himself and the actors in advance by calling his creation a return to melodrama. And true to old-fashioned form, it is by turns whimsical, maudlin, gory, preachy and, at three hours, too long. There is much stilted talk of predestination, and portentous "secrets" hide everywhere -- in diaries, on dying men's lips, in graves.

Guare provides many memorable images, most of them in Act Two: a mythical confrontation between Grant and Lee; black soldiers asking Lydie to pin names like "Napoleon" on their backs so they may die as great men; a Southern woman shot as a traitor by her son, who exults, then mourns; an entire crew of mutineers roaring out of an open grave.

The acting of the 29-member company, which Wager rushes on and offstage like human furniture, is unbridled and uneven. Cary Anne Spear is a radiant Lydie, though occasionally too strident and heavy on the Hepburn. Stanley Anderson plays several roles well, but as a wild boar who attacks Lydie he may have found his most unusual one.

As always, Arena's technical prowess cannot be faulted. The weathered wood planking of Tony Straiges' set accommodates swift transformations; Allen Lee Hughes' lighting is as wildly varied as the locales; and the sound design is as important as the scenery, creating sonic landscapes, alternating the threatening pulse of cannon fire and the lulling throb of the Nantucket sea.