Cheryl West's AIDS play, "Before It Hits Home," is a hodgepodge of '50s realism, journalistic details, ambling storytelling, song and dance, family melodrama and jokes. It's clumsy in spots and cliched in others, and it shows the influence of television writing. It's also, on stage at the Arena, great theater: morally ferocious. A bone-chiller.

The story is simple enough. Wendal, a bisexual African American sax player, contracts AIDS. He can bring himself to tell his male lover (who then tests negative), but not the woman he wants to marry and has been sleeping with. Ill and poor, he goes home to his family. Some of them react well, some of them don't. Then he dies.

This sounds like the kind of production you rush to avoid: serious, lecturing, "good for you." Castor oil theater. Instead, "Before It Hits Home" is full of humor and life and the right kind of scariness -- the kind that keeps you on edge and unsure, afraid of what you'll see but unable to stop watching.

At first, Wendal denies he has AIDS by denouncing "safe sex" as a white genocidal plot. His father goes further -- he's convinced that blacks don't even get AIDS, that whites are lying to them about it. West doesn't set up arguments against these opinions: Death itself is the argument, and it always wins.

By moving the play with assurance from naturalistic to iconographic, almost abstract staging and back, director Tazewell Thompson brings to the production some of the expressionistic power of opera. He's given extraordinary support by Douglas Stein's scuffed, deceptively simple set; Susan White's subtle sound; Nancy Schertler's arresting lighting (she keeps throwing a jittery green spot, green as diseased neon, across the stage); and Helen Qizhi Huang's unobtrusive but witty costumes.

He's also got quite a cast. No one is weak, and there are several standouts. Michael Jayce is a well-meaning, bewildered Wendal, trying bravely to take control of his ebbing life. Cynthia Martells is strong and warm as his lover, Simone, and first amusing then frightening as a pregnant woman with AIDS. As Wendal's lover, Douglass, Keith Randolph Smith is a man who knows he's weak and does his best.

Then there are the two powerhouse actresses, Sandra Reaves-Phillips as Maybelle and Trazana Beverley as Wendal's mother, Reba. Reaves-Phillips is a big, big woman, and she still doesn't seem large enough to contain her enormous talent. Playing Reba's neighbor and best friend, she's a rowdy life force; you can't get enough of her. Beverley takes her role of the sentimental, ultimately rejecting mother to heights of thin, sour terror. I wish West hadn't made both of these women turn out to be weaklings, but with actresses like these in the parts, that's a small quibble.

Toward the end, Wendal's gantlet of humiliation and rejection gets to be too much: It's overwrought, almost masochistic. His brother inexplicably vanishes. And Maybelle has a hysterical scene that defeats even Reaves-Phillips. But it's also at the end that the play moves into still, terrible transcendence. Wendal lies emaciated in his bed, his eyes half-shut and unseeing, his mouth fallen weakly open. You think of photographs of the battlefield dead, and of the horribly realistic corpses carved on medieval tombs. Wendal doesn't die alone, and he doesn't die unloved. But his end is not a peaceful one. His final vision is of Simone, who, merging with another woman from his past, becomes his angel of death and of damnation. At this point, "Before It Hits Home" goes down to the place where usually only tragedy goes: where, stripped of hope, we face our mortality, and where mortality means not nihilism but the acceptance of duty toward life.

Before It Hits Home, by Cheryl West. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Set, Douglas Stein; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Susan R. White; costumes, Helen Qizhi Huang. With Michael Jayce, Cynthia Martells, Keith Randolph Smith, Trazana Beverley, Mercedes Herrero, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Jurian Hughes, Wally Taylor, Ryan Richmond and Lee Simon Jr. At Arena Stage through March 2.