You see a woman on the beach in the distance, talking earnestly to a young girl. This is no ordinary woman, but one who left her Iron Curtain country to come to America and can never return home. A man had left her and she was stranded here: no language, no family, in a state of psychic paralysis.

Years later, this woman's niece, a beautiful child of 12, traveled to America with a group and was allowed to pay a brief visit to her aunt, this woman, on this island. The summer was ending. I had gone out to a beach at the far end of the island for a swim. The only people I saw were these two women in the distance, women from another country, walking along the surf. The older one had an arm around her niece's shoulder, the other hand pointing up and down in measured strokes.

I found another beach. I didn't want to intrude on their spell. But the image haunted me. What was this woman teaching this girl? And the larger question: What do we take out of our experience and pass on? How do we teach? How do we learn? The DNA in our bodies takes care of the genes, but what about the psychic DNA that is the sum of our experience? How and what do we narrate our lives?

Trying to figure that out made me write "Lydie Breeze" (produced here last year by New Playwrights' Theatre), a play dealing with the shambling remnants of a dream and how children survive their parents' disasters. And then in curiosity about what the parents were like when their dream was fresh, I wrote "Gardenia" -- done in tandem with "Lydie Breeze" at New Playwrights'. I wondered what the lives of these people had been before they found each other -- before their lives blended into a golden time that would become their life's central experience. Answering that produced "Women and Water," which Arena Stage did in its PlayLab series last January.

It opens Thursday at the Arena with a cast of 29.

At the moment, I'm sitting in the stage manager's office waiting for rehearsal to begin, and thinking that a year ago I was sitting in a stage manager's office in Los Angeles waiting for a rehearsal of "Women and Water" to begin. But then the theater was smaller, and the text of the play was remarkably different.

Bill Bushnell, who runs the Los Angeles TheaterCenter, had wanted to do "Lydie Breeze," but had questions about the past in that play. I gave him "Gardenia." He had questions about the past in that play. I handed him a rough draft of "Women and Water." Sure beats explaining. He said he would do it, in tandem with "Gardenia." I hesitated; at that point, "Women and Water" was a cinematic series of events I didn't yet understand. Was it comic? What was the source of the comedy? How to make it comic? How to make it tragic? What is the style? Bushnell said, "So we'll put it on and you'll figure it out."

The play, four hours long with a cast of 25, ran from September to December, and I watched it and watched it, watched the noble actors, watched the audiences, gradually learned the tone of the play, looking for the entry into it, learning the reasons for the characters' existence, blending character No. 1 with character No. 2. Plots dropped. Plots added. Chronology shifted. Act 2 becomes Act 1. Act 3 fights it out on its own.

I kept showing the material to Jim Nicola and Lloyd Rose, who had codirected the earlier plays at New Playwrights'. Jim told me about an open date at the Arena PlayLab and I prepared a massive post-L.A. reworking of the script, worked with the Arena actors, and last January, we read the new text on the Kreeger stage -- witnessing the Civil War in the British drawing room of Peter Nichols' "Passion Play," then the Kreeger production.

The audience that freezing Sunday afternoon was brilliant. They understood the spirit of the play and helped me enormously in the postplay discussion period, articulating what they had gotten, what they hadn't.

Learning to listen to an audience is a skill that constantly must be relearned. In 1971 a musical version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" that I was part of transferred from Central Park to the St. James Theater. We could not get the new beginning to work. We couldn't capture the spirit of the piece in the first 15 minutes. Everybody had opinions. We cut. We added. One night the usher from the second balcony stopped me. She said, "Excuse me, but in a section you cut last week you had a really nice moment that I wish you could put back in." I looked at the moment. She was right. I had overcut. I restored her moment. The piece found its proper footing. Learning to listen -- and what to listen for. That's the hardest part of anything.

Last January, the actors and audience shone the necessary lights on "Women and Water." Arena's artistic director Zelda Fichandler and associate producing director Douglas Wager joined the discussions. Perhaps they'd do the play here.

In August, the Arena company with playwright in tow traveled to Colorado College in Colorado Springs for a work session. Along with the white-water rafting and chugging to the top of Pikes Peak, we did another reading and I came back with three new characters, seven boat voyages, typing out the words: "The Curtain rises. The Civil War rages."

I knew the Arena would deliver.

Pull over to the side of the road. This is Epic Patrol. We accuse you of trying to write an Epic. Is it true you've started work on a fourth play in this series?

No, officer! No, your honor, I swear, I didn't start out to write an epic. There were these two women along the beach. End of summer.

No, doctor, I swear I am not suffering from an overdose of "Nicholas Nickleby." Could my wife and I be the only two people on this planet not entranced by "Nicholas Nickleby." Why? Because it was an adaptation of a wonderful novel that you could stay home and read and still have a great time. It didn't create any tradition except casting around for other swell, unlikely 19th-century novels to fling onto the stage. No matter how magically done, it's as if the theater could no longer find the size within itself, but had to reach over to another form; as if the theater had lost its tradition of spectacle. I felt I was writing this play blindly, that the movies had taken over what the stage used to do. And what the stage used to do has always haunted me.

My two granduncles toured from 1880 to 1916 in their stock company of 10 plays with grand titles like "Pawn Ticket 210," "The Girl of the Garrison." No authors were credited. My granduncles purchased the plays outright, added material that had worked in other plays, bits that actors in the company could do. "The Old Toll House" was resplendent with speeches like this:

"Twenty-five years ago this very night, my son took the money he did not know was rightfully his and vanished. Ahh, the same lightning. EFFECT Ohhh, the same thunder. EFFECT Ahhh, that I could see him once again before I die to tell him of his tragic mistake. THREE KNOCKS Hark! Who can that be!" BIT WITH KEY. HANDKERCHIEF BUSINESS. OPEN-DOOR BUSINESS.

I realized that I was not trying to put a novel on stage, but was drawing on 19th-century techniques to remove the squalor from the word that now lies there splat in the modern gutter: melodrama. To find the emotional truth behind 19th-century melodrama.

Melodrama sprang out of a powerful social context, dealt with economic oppression, peopled with characters who believed society could be reformed. I was trying not to write a pastiche, but to make an audience feel it was experiencing these sensations for the first time.

After I saw Louis Malle's terrific "My Dinner With Andre" (Malle, by the way, being the original director of "Lydie Breeze"), I thought if two people having a meal can be a movie, then it's time to bring Cecil B. De Mille back to the boards. But our version of De Mille. I had this vision of Cecil B. and Samuel Beckett wrestling it out stage center. Are they shaking hands? Is it a draw? Is this a new union? Bring on the Red Sea! Paging Ben Hur! The fresh air of doing a play with no offstage action.

The only problem is, who'll do a play like this? Aren't you supposed to recognize economic realities and do that one-set, three-character special?

No. The Arena says yes. Enter cast of 29. I'm sitting here waiting for rehearsals to begin.

The two women? The aunt healed her life and still lives in America. The niece stayed in her country and grew up to become a translator. A link between two worlds.

When I first came to Washington in 1956 as a freshman at Georgetown, the first show playing at the National was a pre-Broadway musical that was briefly advertised as "Gangway!" but opened as "West Side Story." The next production was Rosalind Russell trying out "Auntie Mame." The pride of an 18-year-old: I was sure my responses helped those people pacing at the rear of the theater. God, the responsibility of being a Washington audience. In New York, you just went to see the show. Here you were part of the building of it.

Those days blessedly are over. The destination is here.