Patrick Meyers' "K2" may have some shortcomings as a drama, but they are swept away by the astounding production it is getting in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre.

Set on a thin ledge of ice in Pakistan, 1,250 feet from the top of the world's second highest mountain (the K2 of the title), it is part adventure story, part philosophical meditation on mankind's fragile toehold in the universe. But in the course of approximately 90 unbroken minutes, it also overwhelms the spectator with the breath-catching scope of its special effects and the nail-biting suspense of two mountain climbers brushing up against the cold cheek of death.

In the cinema, this sort of wide-screen realism may be customary. Rarely, however, does the legitimate theater venture into the great outdoors, and when it does, it's usually no further than the garden. For Arena to attempt to duplicate the forbidding challenges of mountain-climbing, especially when the mountain is a perpendicular sheet of ice, would seem nothing short of folly. You will, however, believe wholly in Ming Cho Lee's set--a majestic pipe organ of blue and white, rising implacably in frozen tribute to God or maybe to the Devil. And when actor Stephen McHattie kicks the razor-sharp crampons on his shoes into the mountainside and begins his inch-by-inch ascent to retrieve a rope left behind, you will forget you are in a playhouse.

McHattie plays the mobile member of the team--a zealous assistant district attorney named Taylor, who back home pursues criminals by day and women by night with the same single-minded ferocity. The other--Stanley Anderson, as Harold, a physicist who has found life's riches in wife and child--lies stoically on the narrow shelf of ice. His leg was fractured in a fall the night before, just as the two had started their arduous downward trek. Now, under the thin rays of the morning sun, they must face the unlikely prospect of getting back to civilization with their few pieces of remaining equipment.

Already, you may sense that Meyers' is not the typical saga of mountain climbers, which tends to concentrate on the hard fight up. If, as Harold says, "Mountains are metaphors," they usually serve as metaphors for men surpassing themselves, elevating themselves above the common herd, pursuing a solitary path that leads to transfiguration. Meyers has reversed that. His characters want only to get down, rejoin mankind, reestablish the humble limits of their lives. The mountain has taken away all their claims to arrogance and obliged them to reconsider their tiny place in the scheme of things.

The first word uttered in the play, as the two forms stir under a blanket of snow, is "Alive." The last words are "Hold on." Although his characters speculate on the meaning of life, as men near death often do, Meyers recognizes the ultimate futility of chasing after explanations. "It the cosmos doesn't need me to explain it," reflects Harold with quiet helplessness. "It goes on whether I understand it or not . . . Understanding has no meaning. Holding on, just holding on, that has meaning." Indeed, all that counts--all that can count--are the ties of love and trust that bind men together during their brief appearance on the planet.

That is why, I think, you will pay such attention to the rope in "K2." On purely practical terms, it represents the only way down. The climbers have one 120-foot coil left, and the next sure ledge is at least 300 feet below them. If Taylor can climb back up and retrieve another coil, maybe salvation is possible. By the tension or the slack in the rope, we measure his progress with singular concern. And the simple matter of rope unfurling in the void becomes intensely dramatic. But very quickly rope assumes symbolic meanings, too, defining the spiritual relationships among all men. It is a true "lifeline." And when it is finally severed, it is almost as if a human artery had been cut.

The philosophical implications of "K2" are so implicit in the situation that one regrets Meyers' occasional tendency to underline them. There are patches of dialogue, I fear, where pretention gets the upper hand. Still, Meyers never entirely lets philosophy impede the physical action in the play. Without divulging the events, which are of the edge-of-your-seat variety, suffice it to say that men and nature are here locked in spectacular battle.

Director Jacques Levy and his technical director David Glenn should probably get honorary engineering degrees merely for regulating the staggering mechanics of the production. But Levy has also kept a close eye on the human dimensions of the script, taking his actors to the emotional brink. McHattie vibrates with the energy of the profane, his fury all the more moving for being futile. And Anderson, in a performance that shatters the soul, reveals both the soaring nobility and the pathetic defenselessness of a man who may be left behind. By all rights, the two should be dwarfed by the vastness of the set, and yet spirit makes them large. Their coming together in fear and euphoria is communion of the highest order.

And almost like a third character, there is K2 itself--lit with stunning subtlety by Allan Lee Hughes. Chilling in the gray-blue shroud of late night, golden in dawn's light, rose in the bleeding sunset. But always aloof, disinterested. Men can find no welcome on its flank, but they can discover their shared humanity.

K2. By Patrick Meyers; directed by Jacques Levy; set, Ming Cho Lee; costumes, Noel Borden; lighting, Allan Lee Hughes; technical director, David M. Glenn. With Stephen McHattie, Stanley Anderson. At Arena's Kreeger Theatre through June 6.