Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory companies have earned major reputations for talented performers -- especially recently, when directed by the perceptive and imaginative Sheila McKenna. Now they are doing their best with material by a British playwright who also boasts a major reputation. Caryl Churchill's Top Girls is a mid-career work cited as an important feminist exploration. But such themes don't automatically make Top Girls great.
Churchill does open imaginatively, with a dinner where the guests are famous women from history and legend, gabbing about travails, sorrows and challenges in male-dominated times. However, Churchill has them constantly talk over each other, obscuring content and implying that the content isn't important. Certainly the guests don't seem much interested in what others are saying. Meanwhile, the host is a woman named Marlene, about whom virtually nothing is revealed for a long time, even though she turns out to be a central character. Not a strong way to engage an audience.
In fact, on opening night, about one-fifth of the ticket-holders left at intermission. No doubt their departure was hastened by struggles to decipher the cast's thorough coaching in British accents.
As for substance, initially we get the message that bearing and raising children, especially daughters, can be a bitch. Especially when the father is absent. Especially if you want a career. Duh. That turns out to be where Churchill is heading, narrowing down to domestic drama about a contemporary mother and daughter. Other revelations emerge which would have been useful earlier, such as the fact that Marlene is a self-assured businesswoman operating an employment agency.
The production's program book doesn't offer much help. The characters' interrelationships are not defined, and the historical figures are not clearly identified until Marlene eventually explains.
Several student performers leave strong impressions, especially Brandi Welle in a remarkably believable performance as Joyce, bitter at having to raise an unwanted child alone. That child, Angie, also gets thoroughly true definition from Ashley Laverty. In a smaller role, Val Gasior makes the most and best of Shona, a 21-year-old job-seeker trying to fake her way into a new career.
Overall, McKenna's cast gets high marks for mastering multiple roles and multiple accents. Consider it good training. Consider the play itself of questionable merit, despite Churchill's fame.
Top Girls continues through Oct. 21. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 www.pittsburghplayhouse.com