In a beach house in Connecticut, a middle-aged woman named Jessica is angry about a dead man. Her mother and former mother-in-law are keeping her company because Martin, Jessica's partner of eight years, unexpectedly has passed away.
But Martin's not the one Jessica's vehement about. Instead, as Jessica goes through his things, the talk somehow turns to literature: "Chekhov had compassion," she hisses at her relatives. "Strindberg had spleen!"
It's one of several not-quite-right notes in Canadian playwright Joanna McClelland Glass's "If We Are Women," a 1993 drama directed by Steven Carpenter receiving its area premiere at Washington Stage Guild. The title, taken from a Virginia Woolf quote -- "We think back through our mothers if we are women," is apt. The play's two-plus hours is nearly all backward-looking conversation among Jessica (Lynn Steinmetz), her farm-raised, illiterate mother, Ruth (June Hansen), her ex-husband's highbrow, Jewish mom, Rachel (Jewell Robinson) and Jessica's 18-year-old daughter, Polly (Sarah Fischer), with their various takes on love and life spurred not only by Martin's death but also by Polly's failure to come home after a school dance the night before.
Regrets, they've had plenty. While sitting on Tracie Duncan's pastel-painted deck or preparing food, the women (men, never appearing onstage, are only mentioned) talk mostly about the opportunities, or lack thereof, that their upbringings afforded them and they lament some choices they've made as adults.
Occasionally a character addresses the audience directly with her inner thoughts, aided by Marianne Meadows's subtle spotlights. It's all fairly interesting, often eloquent and sometimes funny. With little action except jaw-flapping until Polly finally shows up, however, the bulk of Act I gets a bit tiresome.
Each actress makes her character stand out, especially Hansen as the gray-haired, on-the-ball Ruth, whose mouth twists to one side as she offers her two cents in a gentle brogue. But the others have their flaws: Robinson's Rachel, so articulate and mannered in the first half, fails to convincingly incorporate the "Oy!" exclamations that Glass suddenly throws into her dialogue in the second. Fischer's Polly gets a little too earnestly whiny, even for a teenager.
And Steinmetz's Jessica just seems way too teed off for someone who just lost a lover: "All I want to do is mourn, and no one will let me!" she spits at Ruth and Rachel.
But the drama's biggest fault lies in Glass's frequently unnatural dialogue. Except for Ruth, this is an educated bunch: Rachel has advanced degrees and teaches, Jessica is a well-known author and Polly's on her way to Yale.
Still, such lines as, "She looked so formidable when she told me!" simply clank. And no teenager -- outside of perhaps a Woody Allen movie -- would lament that she has "lived in a state of schism" or describe her new boyfriend as having had "no ballast in his life."
Act II moves more quickly, with the family's musings gaining focus after Polly announces she's skipping Yale to move to a farm with the boy she spent the night with.
Between Polly's fervid declarations -- "I've met a wonderful boy who just invades my heart!" -- Jessica's passive acceptance of them, and her grandmothers' outrage over both younger women's behavior, though, the act sometimes comes off like an especially ridiculous episode of Oprah.
So it is somewhat surprising when all the analysis results in an emotional wallop: Talking over each other near the finale, the characters face the audience and repeat earlier lines that define their lives, capped by rueful "if only" statements that confess their circumstances aren't quite what they wanted them to be.
The sense of melancholy is overwhelming, yet it's buoyed by the possibilities in Polly's future, represented elegantly by the ring of a doorbell when her paramour arrives for dinner. Glass certainly took a winding, rocky road to get to this point, but at least the destination is satisfying.
If We Are Women by Joanna McClelland Glass. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Set, Tracie Duncan; sound, Clay Teunis; lighting, Marianne Meadows; costumes, William Pucilowsky. About 2 hours, 15 minutes. Through Nov. 27 at Arena Stage at 14th & T, 1901 14th St. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org.