August Wilson wrote better plays than

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

, but never created a more charismatic gallery of characters who fight long and hard for a better life - and once achieving it, can't stop fighting even as they destroy one another. That such clear pathologies emerged from the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production at its Wednesday opening is the most obvious symptom of its overall (though not exactly consistent) excellence.

The play was Wilson's first big success, even if the long view of the script is somewhat bewildering. More than most Wilson plays, Ma Rainey unfolds in real time (as opposed to telescoped stage time) in its portrayal of a 1920s recording session with the title character - the famous, temperamental vocal forerunner of the legendary Bessie Smith. Wilson skirts the typical brilliance-gone-to-seed plot that the setup leads you to expect: The real-life Rainey retired in financial comfort, and he portrays her as someone who isn't at all beholden to the white establishment. She knows the people making money off her care nothing about her personally - and she fights with them over things that don't really matter - while the friends and lovers who should care about her are, in fact, more her hostages than her companions.

Meanwhile, one of her band members is having a homicidal meltdown. This is where the play shows its problems: In scene shifts that seem dictated by who runs out of dialogue first, you spend the most time in the band's changing room as they reveal themselves over matters ranging from food to fashion to God. However, even the most shambling passages contribute to a cumulative effect.

After an amiable hour of meeting and greeting the characters (one that fails to establish whose story is ultimately being told), the plot becomes a Greek tragedy, with characters hurtling inevitably toward their fates. In fact, many of director Irene Lewis' stage pictures were meticulously composed like the figures on an ancient Greek frieze - easy to achieve with actors as statuesque as Thomas Jefferson Byrd (who plays the dignified Toledo). But such stylization, combined with a heightened version of Southern patois that wasn't used consistently, played oddly alongside Wilson's outward naturalism.

No doubt the cast is still finding its legs in this densely written three-hour play. Wilson's original productions were honed over many months in a circuit of regional theaters, arriving on Broadway with the sort of well-oiled-machine dialogue that saved garrulous passages from tedium. Here, the first act was tedious on Wednesday, though anyone who left at intermission missed some incredibly accomplished acting from the ultra-intense Maurice McRae (as Levee, the trumpeter), as well as the uniquely talented E. Faye Butler in the title role. Her Ma Rainey is loyal, protective, imperious, abusive, petty, low-class - and then effortlessly transcends everything when she begins to sing. I don't think I've ever seen so many extremes portrayed so convincingly. If only the Riccardo Hernandez set - a sketchy look at a 1920s recording studio with walls covered with Ma Rainey song titles - had more atmosphere.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company through June 13 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $46-$59. 215-985-0420 or