Lee Mikeska Gardner and Celeste Lawson direct every bit of nuance they can into the Rep Stage's production of "Three Tall Women," but they haven't got the cast to make the play take off. And when it doesn't take off, it drags, laboriously, across the stage for almost two hours.

The halves of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, though connected, are almost two different plays. In Act 1, Woman A (Faith Potts) is introduced to us as a fabulously wealthy, senile, incontinent old harridan who is making life difficult for her nurse, Woman B (Valerie Costantini), and a young lawyer, Woman C (Susan Lynskey), who's come to try to straighten out her financial affairs. In Act 2, we are inside A's head, where her oldest self (Potts) discusses her life with her middle-age and younger selves (Costantini and Lynskey).

The underpinning of the play is Albee's examination of his loathed and pitied adoptive mother, but it evolves beyond anything personal into a meditation on limitation and death. The second act, which could almost stand alone, is a stern, hopeless examination of human hopes and weaknesses. In this production it might have worked better if it had stood alone, since its potential power is drained away by the meandering first act that is supposed to set it up.

In this first act, we meet A in all her selfish, failing, spoiled, racially insensitive glory. It's a nasty portrait. We're not only treated to her humiliation from incontinence, but we also get to hear a long, detailed story about how she flinched from her first offer of oral sex. Albee claims to have forgiven his mother; I'd hate to see what he does to a character based on someone he still hates.

The A of Act 1 has to intrigue the audience enough for us to be fascinated and moved by the revelations of Act 2. Potts has all the mannerisms down pat, and from moment to moment she's convincing as a tyrant and harpy, but the moments don't add up to anything. Potts reveals the whole character in the first five minutes of her performance and then has nothing to do but tread water for the rest of the act. Things get extremely repetitive.

In Act 2, Potts's A is more reflective but still has nothing new to show us, and Costantini plays the middle-aged A all on the blowsy surface. It's left to Lynskey to provide what little drama there is with her portrait of a hopeful, stubborn young A, whose prideful determination to keep her illusions foreshadows the cramped cantankerousness of her aged self.

Gardner and Lawson (who was her co-director on Signature's "Angels in America") have found dozens of little moments between and among the women, many of them nonverbal (as when the nurse refuses to offer the lawyer a cookie), but with two-thirds of the cast not bringing much of anything to these moments, their efforts come to nothing. The actresses just circle Tony Cisek's too-pretty set (all lace and lilac), talking and talking to no clear purpose. In the last five minutes or so, when Potts's A starts talking about how the good part of life is its end, the sentiment takes on an inadvertent double meaning.

Three Tall Women, by Edward Albee. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner and Celeste Lawson. Lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; original score, musical arrangements and sound design, Ron Ursana/The Chroma Group Ltd.; props, Susan Senita Bradshaw. With Roberto Daniel Cabrera. At the Rep Stage in Columbia through Nov. 14. Call 410-772-4900.

CAPTION: Valerie Costantini, Faith Potts and Susan Lynskey drag themselves through Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women," at Rep Stage through Nov. 14.