Why, at this late stage of his career, playwright Samuel Beckett should be considered mystifying is a mystery itself. Take "Endgame," which the Scena Theatre is ably performing at Source Theatre's Mainstage as part of a three-play winter repertory. The title really does explain it all.

The end -- of life, civilization, the earth -- is near. In a cell-like room, surrounded by the desert and beyond that the ocean, four characters wait for the ultimate darkness to descend. They rail, complain about petty ailments, pontificate, dredge up memories and spin increasingly tattered yarns. But what happens next, they do not know. About the best anyone can come up with is "Something is taking its course."

Hamm (Brian Hemmingsen) is a blind autocrat in a wheelchair -- blustering and overemotive. Drop an "m" from his name and you get "ham." Indeed, he could be King Lear as played by a second-rate vaudevillian. (You'll notice the character is forever insisting that his wheelchair be placed exactly in the middle of the empty room. Center stage is his self-appointed turf.)

Hamm's parents, Nagg (Richard Mancini) and Nell (K.F. Waters), are decaying wrecks who have been relegated, literally, to garbage cans, from which their grizzled heads protrude periodically to emit a mutter or nibble on a biscuit. The only mobile character is Clov (Kryztov Lindquist), Hamm's servant, who scurries about the cell -- and an unseen kitchen -- performing what remains of the household chores, suffering the abuse of his master and dreaming, if he's got a dream left in his head, of getting out. This may not be the way humanity checks out, but it's a pretty good guess.

It has always been one of the paradoxes of Beckett's writing that out of such bleak, minimal elements, he is able to produce resonant drama. For all its seeming despair, "Endgame" is often robustly funny. And while the play can be viewed as an expression of the author's abiding pessimism, it can just as easily be seen as a celebration of man's tenacity.

If Beckett believes that life, rigged from the start, is a game we have no chance of winning, there's nonetheless a gallantry to his characters, who persist in persisting. As long as they have words at their disposal, they chatter away under empty skies, and their garrulousness is not without courage. Diminishment may be Beckett's constant theme, but he writes fully and poetically about it.

Director Robert McNamara recognizes the variety under the monochromatic surface of "Endgame" and exploits it deftly. No mournful funeral service, this production is closer to an Irish wake, which confronts death with antic vigor, bald histrionics and even a practical joke or two. My only quibble is that the approach shortchanges the script's delicate poignancy. But for those who tend to find Beckett's plays moribund, the liveliness will no doubt be doubly welcome.

Hemmingsen has a history of playing bullies, and while Hamm is no exception, it is gratifying to see the actor working so successfully in a stylized mode. The performance has some of the swollen grandeur of bad opera, which is not only amusing but appropriate. As Clov, a bowlegged, popeyed Lindquist thinks slowly and races about quickly -- a droll contrast. (It doesn't hurt that the actor looks rather like a ferret designed by Disney.) A chipper Mancini and a lachrymose Waters also score in brief appearances as the throwaway parents.

All of them know it's time for things to end. And yet all of them want to postpone the final curtain. "Endgame," you might say, is the ultimate resistance play.

Endgame.

By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Robert McNamara; set, John M. Connole; lighting, Christopher Townsend; costumes, Lynnie Raybuck. With Brian Hemmingsen, Kryztov Lindquist, Richard Mancini, K.F. Waters. In repertory with "Help Wanted" at Source Theatre's Mainstage, through Feb. 6.