Mystery Spot

As much a cultural as a theatrical phenomenon, The Vagina Monologues arrives to examine the power and meaning of a word

The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler, is not only a performance piece but a phenomenon with more cultural than dramatic impact. Theatrically, it's quite simple: Three women sit on high stools and deliver a series of monologues culled from interviews Ensler conducted with hundreds of women regarding their attitudes and experiences "down there." Vagina has played in 32 countries and has spawned V-Day, an annual Valentine's Day event that benefits groups trying to stop violence toward women.

The version playing at the Edison Theatre, presented by Fox Associates and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, succeeds on the formidable talent of its three actresses -- Carol Kane, Tracey A. Leigh and Amy Love -- and on the power of its words, in particular that word, a word you wouldn't think is that big a deal anymore.

Or is it? The main flaw of this excellent, slickly produced evening of theater is that it presupposes a discomfort with the word "vagina" that seems outdated but apparently exists (in Oklahoma City, no newspaper would accept ads for the play). The piece makes fun of this unease while trying to capitalize on it, and the result sometimes feels like manipulative pandering, an attempt to congratulate us on our open-mindedness while winking at us about the naughtiness of it all. Still, the producers and director Abby Epstein know their audience, and the nervous laughter from the huge, predominantly female crowd at the Edison turns, like clockwork, to laughter of recognition.

Of course, the material isn't just about genitalia but about identity and the self-discovery, both physical and emotional, that occurs when we examine (sometimes quite literally) the sexual part of ourselves. This play is so smart it even pre-empts any attempt to mock this examination as touchy-feely feminism by mocking it first, then celebrating it. It's nothing we haven't heard before, but the message that women need to empower themselves seems to have gotten lost in the last 10 years or so, and the play's popularity is testament to how important this message still is. The final comparison between the vagina and the heart is apt and meaningful, if a little heavy-handed in the writing.

A casting director's work is often overlooked, but James Calleri deserves mention for assembling this cast, a trio of versatile actresses whose styles and personalities are completely different and who all exhibit astonishingly wide range, making each of their many characters distinct. Especially noteworthy is Leigh, who, in the space of one 10-minute monologue, ages from age 6 to adult in a believable and nuanced performance. Her piece about reclaiming the "C-word" is another tour de force. Love delivers a poetic, emotionally devastating account of a Bosnian rape victim and gets big laughs delivering a series of different orgasmic moans, bringing freshness and humor to an overworked comic staple.

Kane is great, an old pro who knows how to milk the most from her material, playing to the audience but always keeping the emotional connection with the wide variety of characters she plays. Her "angry woman" piece scores as the biggest crowd-pleaser, a diatribe against various ways the vagina is humiliated by society, including a hilarious account of a gynecological exam.

Starting Dec. 18, KMOX-AM personality Carol Daniel will replace Kane. Because the monologues can support many interpretations, it should be interesting to see what Daniel does with the same material.