"The Aunts" is a tiny, anemic play that is salvaged -- to the extent that a salvage operation is possible -- by a robust young actress.

The author is Gary Bonasorte, who writes a fairly pedestrian brand of realism, widely practiced on television. While he chronicles the behavior of his characters with a certain accuracy, he has yet to orchestrate that behavior into the highs and lows of drama. "The Aunts," which opened Monday night at Source Theatre, tends to run on, like tap water.

The actress is another matter. Her name is Brilane Bowman, and she has a natural theatrical presence. A dumpling with a pouty mouth and a tangle of red hair that easily could be mistaken for a rat's nest, she would never pass unnoticed in a crowd. But it's her vitality that's so welcome in "The Aunts."

Playing a dumb, ungainly girl, waiting for her boyfriend to telephone and filling the long, agonizing moments with every snack she can lay her pudgy hands on, she is very much alive. The alert performance, as amusing as it is truthful, is all that keeps the play from retreating into its shell of mumbled emotions and disappearing altogether.

Bonasorte has laid out a potentially dramatic situation, but he steadfastly refuses to come to grips with it. Nan (Pat Murphy Sheehy) and Meg (Ann Content) are the titular aunts. The play takes place in Nan's living room; in an upstairs bedroom, her husband is dying of cancer. To help her through the ordeal, boozy Meg has moved in temporarily. So has their niece, Pita (Bowman), although Pita's dithery mind is not exactly a source of solace.

What Bonasorte wants to show us, I suspect, is how these three women liberate themselves from the off-stage men in their lives. Nan must cope with the reality of widowhood. Bitter Meg, mired in a bad marriage, finally breaks away from her loutish husband. Even Pita will come to understand her dreamboat is a dolt. But none of this seems psychologically inevitable, and the scenes are unfocused and meandering. The dramatic high point occurs when the three women get stoned on marijuana brownies.

Bart Whiteman's staging captures the unpretentious surface of the play nicely enough. But if there are hidden depths in "The Aunts," he fails to uncover them. Sheehy, looking drawn and stern, gives such a low-keyed performance as the grieving wife that you have to strain sometimes to hear her. As the raucous aunt, Content could be doing an imitation of Maureen Stapleton, to whom she bears more than a passing resemblance in looks and manner. That leaves Bowman, who brings the only touches of originality and zest to a drama sorely lacking in both.

The Aunts. By Gary Bonasorte. Directed by Bart Whiteman. Set, Bart Whiteman. Lighting, Jennifer Garrett; costumes, John-Brock Freeman. With Pat Murphy Sheehy, Ann Content, Brilane Bowman. At Source Theatre through March 22.