Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Shadow Box, CSU Summer Stages

It is a Buddhist concept that, in order to live each day fully, one must consciously carry an awareness of death. While that may seem like a bummer to most of us, it can actually be oddly freeing. This perhaps explains why so many people with terminal illnesses profess that they have never felt so alive.

That is one of the many truths lurking in The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer, now playing at CSU Summer Stages. Written in the 1970s, and the winner of both a Tony and a Pulitzer, the play has not aged particularly gracefully.

Compared to contemporary works about this morbid topic, the characters here often seem too conveniently predictable and the dialog at time almost painfully didactic. But a talented director, Everett Quinton, and a more than capable cast manage to wrest the play from some of the playwrights less than felicitous structures and phrasings.

There are three groups of people in residence at a hospice in the woods for terminal cancer patients. Their sharing of a common fate is expressed nicely in the set, which has them walking through each other’s rooms and spaces while only interacting with their own friends and loved ones.

In one cabin, blue collar Joe is welcoming the arrival of his wife Maggie and teenage son Steve (Charles Hargrave), who have come to stay with him in his declining days (although Steve knows nothing of the seriousness of his dad’s condition). In another, garrulous and philosophical Brian and his younger partner Mark are living out his last days when Brian’s wild and crazy ex-wife Beverly arrives. And in the third, elderly, crotchety Felicity and her grown daughter Agnes are bickering and hanging on.

Some of these folks are interviewed by a hospice staffer, who seeks information about their feelings and so forth. This rather plausible construct unfortunately provides the playwright an opportunity to ramble on at length about his life-death philosophies, many of which have been stated better and more succinctly elsewhere.

However, the play crackles with energy when the characters are allowed to bounce off each other. Ursula Cataan is marvelous as Maggie, a down-to-earth gal who just can’t accept the fact of her husband Joe’s imminent demise. Equally fine is Tom Woodward as Joe, and their scenes together are the highlight of the show.

As Brian and Beverly, Greg Violand and Story Comeaux show off their acting chops. But director Quinton allows them to torque their attacks a half turn too far, so that Brian seems a bit too joyful and vibrant for a man in his condition, and Beverly goes over the line from free-spirited to free-to-all-comers. Mark (a mostly believable Randy Muchowski) fills in his back story as a prostitute who fell in love with his trick Brian. This trio’s climactic scene, a confrontation between Beverly and Mark, seems a bit overdone and needlessly melodramatic.

Felicity and Agnes are the quietest pairing, and Agnes is subjected to an exquisite bit of mental torture when the interviewer (Justin Steck) forces her to face a truth about her actions. Lydia Chanenka is a mess of hostility and delusion as Felicity, and Denise Astorino suffers with passive grace as Agnes.

Although there are better, more elegant plays about death and dying (to wit, Wit), The Shadow Box still has things worth saying. And this production, for the most part, says them with style.

The Shadow Box
Through August 9 (or so),
1833 East 23rd Street,

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