No kidding– THE CHILDREN is among the best plays and productions I’ve ever seen in Boston.  In the shadow of a looming pandemic, Lucy Kirkwood’s acutely timely Tony-nominated play is now onstage in a masterful production at SpeakEasy Stage. It is a divinely-acted, eerily relevant work that first gets under your skin, then leaves you standing back questioning what you owe life itself. Three of our best acting veterans bring every last bit of their artistry and chemistry to an intimate stage and we are fused to our seats as we try to figure out where these characters and ultimately ourselves are headed.

L-R Paula Plum & Karen MacDonald/Photo Maggie Hall Photography

The play begins and ends in a shaft of light; at first, the light comes up on a woman named Rose, bleeding in a kitchen. Karen MacDonald as Rose has just paid a surprise visit to her friend Hazel played by Paula Plum. Their accents and the sound of the sea tell us we’re somewhere on the coast of England. Rose’s accent comes and goes, and it may be because, as we gradually learn, she’s spent time abroad in America; she hasn’t seen Hazel her former colleague in almost 40 years. They once worked together as nuclear physicists in a power plant nearby. There’s tension as well as blood in the air of this run-down cottage, and it’s Kirkwood’s plan to unwrap what’s going on in layers, with accumulating power.

We also learn that this cottage where Rose and her husband are now hunkering down is located outside an “exclusion area” that has been circumscribed in the wake of some sort of disaster — earthquake? Tsunami? Rose and Hazel circle each other in that forebodingly lit (by Jeff Adelberg) kitchen, alternately cordial and icy, tentatively getting re-acquainted, gauging each other’s temperatures. Director Bryn Boice meticulously choreographs their every move around Cristina Todesco’s scrupulously detailed, compact set. We watch these actresses in full possession of their gifts, slowly uncoiling Hazel and Rose’s  complex history in that tight space, and we listen closely to their perfectly calibrated interchanges to figure out what, exactly, is between them.

The conversation twists and turns between the hilarious and the hostile. Plum’s Hazel is blunt, industrious pragmatist who lives by the credo that one “leave a place cleaner that you found it.” That line will come back to haunt her, as will Rose’s nosebleed. Rose, having clearly knocked Hazel off balance with her sudden appearance, is freer beneath her caution, with a readier sense of humor, and almost seems to be stalking Rose around the kitchen.

Tyrees Allen Allen/Photo Maggie Hall Photography

What is locked in their history may just become unlocked when Hazel’s husband arrives home. Tyrees Allen plays the tall, handsome Robin also a physicist who once worked with his wife and Rose, and the plot thickens. Is this a garden variety love triangle of guilt, betrayal and revenge? Or is this a garden of eden disrupted by a more existential threat of natural and unnatural proportions?

The play creeks just a bit as it arranges for one or another of the characters to leave the stage allowing us to glean more from the two left behind talking while the third is out of earshot. I cannot divulge what is eventually revealed without spoiling the experience. But I never saw it coming, though from its opening line “How are the children?” the play has lead us precisely there, and it is an uncomfortable place, indeed.

There is a tricycle, but no visible “children,” unless we rethink our terms and the way any of us uses our capacities within the confines of our mortality. But the beauty of Kirkwood’s play is the opposite of a polemic, instead, drawing its power from the depths of the questions we are gradually asked to fathom.  It amasses meaning and gathers momentum via metaphorically-loaded dialogue in tandem with purposefully staged action, its scope slowly rippling out until the last scene overflows: Hazel and Rose moving and breathing in a house at the edge of a cliff, Robin sweeping with the sound of the sea rising, and in a ghostly light, generations at their backs, the women stare out into the darkness, the whole set seeming to fall away … It shook me to my core. You must see this before everything is shut down in this city. At SpeakEasy Stage at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion through March 28.