"The Shadow Box," winner of the 77 Pulitzer drama prize, is having its area premiere in a splendid production by Baltimore's Center Stage, where the run will be Tuesdays through Sundays, through Oct. 29.

Michael Cristofer's deeply moving play embodies the theme Thornton Wilder set forth so lastingly in "Our Town," the preciousness of mere living. Through the young author's sensitive understanding what might seem superficially a depressing study becomes a celebratin of the gift of life.

On the grounds of a California hospital, where the hospice movement received early acceptance, three people, in separate cottages, are dying of cancer. A middle-aged man who bravely accepts his fate is visited by his teen-aged son and fretful wife: The former wife and young male love of a whimsical writer make their peace over the writer's excited, aware reaction to death; a daughter conceals the death of her more preferred sister to comfort her aged, dying mother.

Cristofer observes two major problems to these like situations: individual acceptance of dying and the effort loved ones must make now and in the immediate future. Because Cristofer accents the joy of living, its modest, unexpected pleasures and the shattering brevity of life itself, the play inspires catharsis in its audiences. We are sobered but we have learned, felt something timeless inevitable.

The play's dramatic skill lies in Cristofer's technique of folding in and out of the unrelated situations, using a single cottage to represent all three and the hospital interviewer as an outsider to inspire inner thoughts and conflicts.

Director Stan Wojewodski Jr. employs the device impeccably. And the leafy background Andrew Jackness and Judy Ramuson have arranged is a subtle prod to the flowing style.

The nine roles are splendidly, actable, and each is given assured, swift definition. Susan peretz's middle-class wife is especially well drawn, as in Tana Hicken's un-appreciated daughter to the old woman, who Sudie Bond plays with her widely valued, calm understatement.

Even to one who recalls the New York production vividly, the others bring singular mettle to their strong roles, Steve Gilborn and Terry O'Quinn digging to find the dignity within the male lovers. Joseph Costa's middle-aged man swiftly establishes the device of the interview, selflessly read by Daniel Szelag. Holly Barron, as the frivolous divorcee, and Richard L. Malone, as the lad, complete the east.

The October 3 opening performance for the company's 16th season was welcomed by board president Donald Rothman, who noted the Maryland Assembly's recognition of Center Stage as the state theater of Maryland. Sponsors of that legislation, Dels. Frank B. Pesci and Timothy R. Hickman and State Sen. Victot Crawford were in the audience as was Baltimore's arts-conscious Mayor William D. Schaefer.