Jeffrey Hatcher's "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" has made its debut on a Twin Cities stage, 13 years after it was written and eight years since it was made into a feature film. What took so long?

There are a few dramaturgical holes along the way, but this is a big and very enjoyable play full of chewy intellectual questions. Walking Shadow Theatre Company has muscled up 14 actors and three musicians, dazzling costumes and enough atmospheric lighting to fill in the universe of Restoration England.

Hatcher's script embroiders the real-life story of Edward Kynaston, one of the last men to play women's roles in London. Jealousies and connivances create an opportunity for King Charles II to loosen the rules and let women in on the game.

"A woman playing a woman?" snarls Wade Vaughn's Kynaston. "What's the trick in that?"

He learns that the trick is the same for a man playing a man -- creating character from the pulsing psyche rather than ornate gesture. Margaret Hughes, Kynaston's rival and the first professional woman actor, encounters the same difficulty. Kynaston and Hughes are two halves of a complementary soul wrestling with the question of how we gauge gender. As Hatcher's script posits: "A man isn't what he acts; he is what he does."

Kynaston discovers his inner man through a tryst with his dresser, Maria, although this experience doesn't quite feel profound enough to effect such a transformation. Suddenly, he is up for the testosterone-fueled role of Othello and is throwing Hughes' Desdemona around stage like he's Stanley Kowalski dispatching Blanche.

But Hatcher's play is so enjoyable and his love for backstage drama so genuine that we suspend disbelief at this point and ride with the action.

Director John Heimbuch understands this play and its setting well. Actor Matt Sciple is an enthusiastic Samuel Pepys, whose diaries tell Kynaston's story. Duncan Frost cuts a wide swath as the fanciful dandy Sir Charles Sedley, and Teresa Marie Doran has a quiet authenticity as Maria. Jane Froiland finds in Hughes a woman confident at court but a mess of insecurities on stage.

That leaves us with Kynaston, and Vaughn digs into this meaty role with an actor's talons and claws. He creates a Kynaston of effete and supreme arrogance, even after he has been laid low by thugs and the king's edict. However, Vaughn somehow keeps the character grounded in self-deprecation -- the knowledge that he's putting on an act. He and Froiland bristle with realism as Othello and Desdemona.

Katherine B. Kohl's costuming should win some kind of award. Her work dresses a beautiful production.