Playwright David Rudkin affirms, in "Ashes," that for all today's plain-speaking, the mystery of life remains. The Briton's play, which New York admired last season, opened Tuesday at Baltimore's Center Stage, to run through April 23.

Designed to shock with verbal and clinical details, "Ashes" explores a young couple's efforts to conceive a child. They will fail. Even their attempt to adopt a child will fail.

Rudkin's purpose reaches deeper than the couple's personal efforts to cope with various medical, physical and attitudinal solutions. Overshadowing their private grief is the tragedy of the would-be father's background: He is Northern Irish and his personal sterility seems to him to reflect the sterile, bomb-blasts of Belfast.

Returned from a brief Belfast visit, he sees himself as "another self for the rubbish heap with all the rest. Myself as tribal son. Yet, if we do not change, tomorrow has no place for us."

Thus, for all the clinical guidance and scientific guesses about human creation with which Rudkin so purposefully assaults his audience, he concludes that the mystery of birth remains, and his play achieves a tone of disturbed wonder.

Rudkin does not, however, explore the consequences of the couple's - and our current - plain talk. Is, perhaps, sterility a price for our boastful, crude half-knowledge? Is it possible that our new freedoms, our kicky cynicism, are breeding only sterility?

The production is beautifully done, with Tana Hicken especially affecting as the wife, a delicate, questing performance indeed. Terry O'Quinn, as the husband, masters scenes which easily could be muddied. George Taylor and Ellen Parks manage eight subsidiary roles with distinct capability and self-effacement.

Even the setting by Clark Crolius, spare and metallic, is an exemplary adjunct to the script, which Stan Wojewodski Jr. has staged with tactful persuasion.