"The time has come to speak of love," the Narrator solemnly tells us. "The lover and the beloved come from different countries. The curt truth is that in a deep, secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many; for the lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause them both only pain." This tender truth comes from Carson McCullers' 1951 novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and it contains the kernel of suffering innate in unrequited love. Long before Robert James Waller exposed the passions dormant in the ordinary housewife (giving sentiment a bad rap), there was a tradition of Southern writers who celebrated idiosyncrasy by spanning the bridges between lonely outcasts.

Writing in that Southern Gothic style, McCullers (along with Truman Capote and Beth Henley) is obsessed with the grotesque. She wants us to indulge her empathetic view of her peculiar characters, with a tenderness that is almost painful in its pathos. If you listen to recordings of the author reading her own work, you will hear McCullers weeping with each aching image.

This kind of writing is best appreciated in solitude, where your heart can savor the delicacy of the feelings. The private nature of this story is difficult to share with the public, which pays to come and stare. How curious it is, then, that our most cerebral playwright, Edward Albee, saw it as his duty to adapt this poetic confessional to the commercial stage!

Albee uses a Narrator to deliver poetic insights that are meant to frame our experience of this bizarre love triangle, but the device is awkward and dramatically unfulfilling. The overwrought poetry is as difficult for an audience as the eccentricities of the characters. This is the kind of play in which the leading lady will save the kidney stones from her surgery as precious gems, and in which one character will plaintively declare to another: "I do love you so!" After an abbreviated Broadway run in 1963, Ballad has been laid in mothballs, but there is a timely aspect to this revival. The most resonant element of the play is the fascination the characters express for the chain gang working on the country roads. "They have no freedom," one character muses, "but they're together." With the return of the anachronistic chain gang to contemporary Arizona highways, there is a chilling relevance to these forlorn creatures.

Set in rural Georgia, Ballad is a saga of a doomed mnage trois among a colossus of a woman, a studly redneck and a dwarf. With such exceptional demands, the play is a challenge to cast, but Tres Repertory Theatre is undaunted in its quest to stage obscure but worthy dramas. This time it needs a lot of tolerance from its faithful audience. Director/designer Paula Glitsos has devised a simple set, dividing the space between Miss Amelia Evans' general store and the hay-strewn yard outside. Glitsos' staging is crude but efficient, preventing most of her actors from bumping into each other. She has created a kind of life for the town that provides a world in which the unusual events of the play can be enjoyed, without poking us in the ribs. Her production conveys the plot of the play with as much credibility as she is able to squeeze from her amateur cast.

Endemic to an amateur company, the talent varies widely, from the skilled to the hopeless. Leading the cast as Miss Amelia is Lisa Nix, who brings authority and concentration to a role previously played by Colleen Dewhurst on Broadway and Vanessa Redgrave in the 1992 film. While not the equal of her predecessors, Nix brings a simple honesty to the part that allows the mystery of the character to be preserved.

Less accomplished is Trace Milan as Amelia's nemesis, Marvin Macy. Milan cannot convey the magnetism the role requires, if we are to believe that both Amelia and Cousin Lymon find him irresistible. The best that Milan can manage is a kind of seedy ruthlessness that is more comic in effect than charismatic.

In the pivotal role of Cousin Lymon, J. Eisenberg brings a fascinating androgyny as the dwarf, which helps to dramatize the strange dimensions of the erotic compulsion. "I am a curious little person," Lymon confides, and in this performance, that is true in every sense of the word. Eisenberg is best grinning with helpless infatuation, as she/he follows Marvin around, practically salivating with lust at his every move. The portrayal of the sadistic cruelty toward Amelia is less successful.

Once again, Tres veteran Tom Noga demonstrates that he is a first-rate actor, capable of remaining honest in the midst of the most outrageous behavior. Unfortunately, in his dual role as fight choreographer, he is less successful.

The final big fight takes place on Groundhog Day, and it is, we are told, to be experienced "as a solemn and festive occasion."

Unmotivated by the action of the story, the adaptation calls on the actors and the director to provide the climax that is obligatory onstage. None of these participants is quite up to making this event the payoff Albee hoped for.

Ryan Angle and Janet Andrews provide lan in a couple of minor roles, but Don Logan II is stiff in the thankless role of the Narrator. His performance is as stilted in execution as the device is in conception. Director Glitsos has tried to stage him in casual poses, often with his foot up on swing downstage center, resting his arms on his knees, but Logan makes each pose look as synthetic as a city slicker posturing as a Marlboro man.

Nevertheless, Tres Repertory is diligent in its determination to explore the challenges of an unusual repertoire, and when it relies on its integrity, it can exhibit flashes of theatrical lightning.--