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'Top Girls' is dressed for success

WILLIAMSTOWN -- When it opened in London in 1982, Caryl Churchill's play ''Top Girls" startled and delighted audiences with its audacious dissection of the price women pay for success. Well, women are still paying, and ''success" is as loaded a word as it ever was, so it's not surprising that the Williamstown Theatre Festival should stage a revival of this still topical play.

What is surprising is that it's not revived more often. That may be because some of its insights, fresh in 1982, have become commonplace: No one can have it all; the business world drains the soul; women have more shared pain than they realize. But Churchill's speedy, rich, overlapping dialogue remains dazzling and deft, which is reason enough to take pleasure in seeing ''Top Girls" onstage once more.

Of course, the difficulty of the language may be another reason directors steer clear of the play in favor of other feminist work or of Churchill's own later, more tightly structured plays. The complex, multiple roles, with wildly varying speech patterns and internal narratives, make heavy demands on the all-female cast, both individually and as an ensemble.

Mostly, the group that director Jo Bonney has assembled in Williamstown rises to the challenge. Broadway veterans Ellen McLaughlin and Becky Ann Baker make particularly strong appearances in the play's famous opening scene, which has Jessica Hecht, as upwardly mobile businesswoman Marlene, hosting a dinner party for notable women from history and legend. McLaughlin wrings every drop of humor and wry wisdom from her lines as the heretical Pope Joan, right up until her retelling of her tragic end takes your breath away. Baker, too, amuses as Isabella Bird, a 19th-century adventurer whose obstinate disdain for other cultures is as thick as her Scottish brogue.

Other accents in this tricky scene, notably Reiko Aylesworth's as the 13th-century courtesan turned Buddhist nun, Lady Nijo, prove more distracting than definitive. Both Aylesworth and Elizabeth Reaser, who's all golden tresses and pink pout as Chaucer's Patient Griselda, could benefit from observing the vocal and physical finesse of their colleagues here. Hecht's Marlene is generally strong, letting us see both her desires and her insensitivity to those of others, though her accent, too, seems to wobble a bit.

In later scenes, where we delve deeper into Marlene's journey from grinding poverty to driven professionalism, such limitations are less damaging; Hecht grows more subtle and persuasive, and Aylesworth and Reaser manage to inhabit their roles as a pair of garishly power-suited underlings. But there's still a gap between the level of their work and that of, say, Laura Heisler, who moves from laconic stolidity as the helmeted Dull Gret (a character from a Brueghel painting) in the first scene to vibrant, painful vulnerability as young Angie, one of the loved ones Marlene has left behind in her climb.

The real power of this production comes in the pivotal scene between Marlene and her sister, Joyce, when Angie invites Marlene back for a visit. Years of mutual distrust and resentment build relentlessly to an explosion between the two women, who cannot comprehend each other's lives or even, at times, their own. Baker is magnificent as Joyce -- magnificent in small, telling ways, as when she retrieves the discarded ribbon and wrapping from a present Marlene has given her and folds them away with tender, heartbreaking care.

Bonney directs the group efficiently, with clever scene changes that keep us moving from place to place without getting dizzy. Ilona Somogyi has fun with the '80s silhouettes and also provides nice touches in the more historical costumes; David Zinn's spare set and Frances Aronson's elegant lighting work particularly well for the dinner party, with a gray scrim allowing us to observe each guest as she promenades behind it, bathed in a golden glow, then comes around to take her place at the table.

We've seen this table before, but there's pleasure in seeing it set again. And if Marlene, with her Thatcherism and her big shoulders, is starting to feel a bit like a historical figure herself, she still has plenty to tell her sisters about the way we live now.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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