When Edward Albee's heavily symbolic, densely layered play, "Tiny Alice," opened in 1964, it was generally regarded as the theatrical equivalent of Churchill's line about "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
In other words, most audiences -- and most critics -- found it baffling. But in an important sense, being baffled is an appropriate response because "Tiny Alice" is a play about faith. And faith, at least to some of us, is a rather baffling concept.
As this might suggest, "Tiny Alice" makes extraordinary demands on the audience and on the theater that produces it. It is an especially daunting endeavor for a non-professional theater.
That's all the more reason to praise the stunning accomplishment of gutsy director Steve Goldklang and his proficient cast at Fells Point Corner Theatre.
At first, Albee's theology-laden plot seems surprisingly straightforward. An extremely wealthy woman, identified only as Miss Alice, offers to donate $2 billion to the Catholic Church in exchange for the services of a lay brother named Julian.
Those services initially consist of acting as the cardinal's emissary. But Julian soon finds himself spending more and more time with Miss Alice, and before long, she persuades him to move into the house, and eventually, to marry her.
However, things are puzzling at Miss Alice's house, or more accurately, her castle. Miss Alice first appears to be an old crone, but that turns out to be a disguise worn by a young, attractive, sensual woman, regally portrayed by Jennifer Brown.
Miss Alice wastes little time telling Julian she has had affairs with her lawyer (a haughtily cruel Mark E. Campion) and with her butler (a smug, but by comparison, relatively congenial Christopher Thomas Clegg).
The fact that the butler's name is "Butler" is an additional puzzle. But the biggest puzzle of all is a scale model of the castle. When Julian notices a fire in the model's chapel, the castle's actual chapel turns out to be in flames. What's real and what's not?
This is a particularly disturbing conundrum for Julian, who was once institutionalized after experiencing a crisis of faith related to his inability to reconcile reality and abstraction.
"I have learned," the lawyer tells Julian in a key moment, "never to confuse the representative of . . . a thing with the thing itself."
In the challenging role of Julian, Joe Moore manages to convey sincerity, intensity, and eventually ecstasy, without appearing overwrought. His portrayal is crucial since it is Julian's faith that is tested. Does he become a true believer in the end?
And if so, in what does he believe -- abstraction or reality, the representative or the thing itself?
Albee leaves this question tantalizingly open, and one of the script's most intriguing aspects is that the character who is offered a chance to embrace faith is also the character who expresses the most doubts.
Indeed, in a production that consistently emphasizes the play's thought-provoking mystery instead of its solution, one of director Goldklang's best and subtlest strokes is that he resists the temptation to sway the ending, wisely allowing it to pose more questions than answers.
What: "Tiny Alice"
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Dec. 19
Tickets: $8 and $10
Call: (410) 276-7837