England in the late 19th century: Not a good time to be female. Talk about a population imbalance - the nation had a half million more women than men. If you were looking to marry and have children (women had few other options at the time), well, you kept looking.

Some Victorian women saw a chance to bridge this demographic chasm by fighting for independence, and for ways to support themselves in a man's world. The nascent suffragette movement must have been tough going. It deserves better than a rough, belabored play.

The U.S. premiere of Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal, which opened at the Wilma Theater Wednesday night, tries to tackle the issues women faced when they struck out for respect and emancipation, and ends up being tackled by its own storytelling.

The questions it poses are meaty. Does equality mean that women should reject everything in a man's world, or that they should become more like men? Can these women, out to change the way men relate to them, fall in love - and if they deny their own emotions, are they hypocrites?

The play - about two women, Mary and Rhoda, who are beacons of the movement and three sisters who come to their typing school - begins with a highly artificial device: For no reason, Rhoda asks Mary to describe once again the gory details of being force-fed while on a hunger strike in prison - and the two even recite the facts in unison. The actresses might as well skip the silly dialogue and hold up a sign: "Quiet in the Audience. Characters Are Being Introduced."

In two clumsy instances in the second act, characters livid with one another turn, on a line, to become understanding and supportive. And in the last scenes, which come too late, after arguments we've heard too often, Age of Arousal takes a new interest in plot, and its form shifts.

Not that the old form, which Griffiths calls a fantasia, was so compelling. The play unfolds in many chapters, their headings ("The Dream." "The Bump." "Impressionists.") projected onto the rear of Matthew Saunders' sparse, reddish Victorian set. Characters lace their dialogue with recitations of their thoughts: "I can smell the meat on her!" says a hungry woman as she speaks civilly with her hostess, and others deliver musings on pulsating loins or sex, sex, sex. (There's a lot of hot talk.)

The doublespeak is fascinating in the first few scenes, and a real surprise. But after that, it prevents sizzling dialogue because so much of the good stuff is spoken only in internalized lines. I'll give Age of Arousal its due - several interchanges are clever, and one smart scene at an impressionism exhibition melds the women's self-doubts with their evolving understanding of the art.

Director Blanka Zizka's staging is precise; the script is hard to parse but the production's smooth. Mary Martello is excellent as the leading freedom fighter, and Krista Hoeppner is, too, as her sidekick and sometime lover. The three sisters - portrayed by Roxanne Wellington, Monique Fowler and Larisa Polonsky - easily develop into distinct characters, and Eric Martin Brown is charming as the lone male who grapples with changing times. Janus Stefanowicz has dressed the women in sumptuous Victorian wear, among the season's most outstanding costumes.

Age of Arousal

Written by Linda Griffiths, directed by Blanka Zizka, scenery by Matthew Saunders, costumes by Janus Stefanowicz, lighting by Russell H. Champa, sound and music by Troy Herion. Presented by the Wilma Theater.

The cast: Mary Martello (Mary), Krista Hoeppner (Rhoda), Monique Fowler (Alice), Roxanne Wellington (Virginia), Larisa Polonsky (Monica), Eric Martin Brown (Everard).

Playing at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., through Jan. 6. Tickets: $37-$52. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org. EndText

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.