Each of the women gathered in a tony restaurant for the opening scene of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls’’ has a tale to tell: of the cruelty of men, of their defiance of those cruel men, of children abruptly taken away from them and never seen again.
“So much pain,’’ one of the women says quietly. Responds another, gently but firmly: “Yes, but don’t cry.’’
In Churchill’s bleak and unsparing vision, life is a relentless battle, requiring stoicism, and a jigsaw puzzle, requiring guile. Certain qualities are also required of anyone who directs this fascinating 1982 drama, such as rigor and flair. Liesl Tommy demonstrates both in her superb Huntington Theatre Company production at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. Tommy and her exceptional cast (almost all of whom play multiple roles) skillfully navigate the tonal and structural complexities of “Top Girls,’’ ensuring that the play’s challenging, time-shifting journey is one well worth taking.
Prepare for those challenges, though. Churchill doesn’t make things easy for audiences as she immerses us in a circuitous meditation on gender roles, class, and power dynamics through the ages. Tommy — who helmed an unforgettable 2011 Huntington staging of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined’’ and also presided over strong productions of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’’ (2012) and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun’’ (2013) — can’t do much with the occasionally draggy stretches that have always bedeviled “Top Girls.’’ Also likely to try your patience is the Altmanesque overlapping dialogue (called for in Churchill’s script), which is especially prevalent in that opening scene.
Still and all, there’s never been a dinner gathering quite like this one. The chic, self-confident Marlene (Carmen Zilles) has just been promoted to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency, and there to help Marlene celebrate are a dizzying array of figures from history, art, and literature. Taken as a whole, they add up to a kind of group portrait of womanhood.
The guests include Victorian-era English traveler Isabella Bird (a briskly assertive Paula Plum); Lady Nijo (Vanessa Kai, terrific), a 13th-century Japanese courtesan to an emperor, who later became a Buddhist nun; Pope Joan (Sophia Ramos), who was once believed to have briefly served as pontiff in the ninth century, disguised as a man; the steel-helmeted, armor-wearing Dull Gret (Carmen M. Herlihy), the subject of a Bruegel painting in which a sword-wielding woman leads other women on a rampage through hell; and Patient Griselda (Elia Monte-Brown), the obedient wife of “The Clerk’s Tale’’ in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.’’
An intriguing blend of competitiveness and camaraderie emerges from this collection of contrasting personalities, life experiences, and worldviews. Lady Nijo proudly recounts how she fought back (“I hit him with a stick!’’) after the emperor beat her and also allowed his attendants to beat her, but it is she who seems most saddened by the losses she has suffered (it is Lady Nijo who murmurs “So much pain’’). Pope Joan boasts that she knew nothing of the cultural constraints of being a woman (“I never obeyed anyone. They all obeyed me’’), but she also gravely describes the horrific fate that befell her after her true gender was belatedly discovered.
Self-definition was what these women were after — a complicated goal in any era, as we see in Act 2, when Pope Joan and the other women disappear, except for Marlene, and lives lived on an epic scale yield to more mundane female existences. It’s the 1980s, the Thatcher era in England, and a Darwinian ruthlessness is in vogue.
First the action shifts to a backyard in a working-class neighborhood, where a slow-witted 16-year-old named Angie (Herlihy again) is playing with a younger neighbor and quarreling bitterly with her mother, Joyce (Ramos), toward whom Angie harbors a murderous rage. Joyce, who is Marlene’s sister, is clearly worn down, exuding the air of a woman trapped by circumstance. That troubling scene gives way to one set in an office, where, having prevailed over a man to win her job, the hitherto-sympathetic Marlene seems to be emulating some of the worst aspects of male behavior. One of the uncomfortable questions “Top Girls’’ raises is whether that sort of transformation is inevitable.
In any case, Marlene appears pretty comfortable with an Every-woman-for-herself ethos. (Her verdict on Angie, who comes to visit her in the office, is coldly Thatcher-like). Joyce sees the world very differently, and the eventual, blistering showdown between the sisters crackles with tensions that have equally to do with their complicated personal history and with the stratifications of social class.
Churchill gives the final word of “Top Girls’’ to Angie, who clearly is not destined to be a top girl and will not fare well in the world that is taking shape around her. Fittingly for this disquieting and essential play, that final word is one that just might put a chill in your bones.
Play by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Liesl Tommy
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston. Through May 20. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin