DEATH AND THE MAUDLIN

In 1977, a very lean year for drama, The Shadow Box won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, but lost the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award to David Mamet's American Buffalo. "Disease plays" were fashionable then, but about this one, critics were divided. The more intellectual of them disdained its melodramatics. At the time, I was very moved by the play and thought the critics snobs to reject its heartfelt power. With The Shadow Box's revival at Tempe Performing Arts Center, the question is, how has it weathered the passage of time?

Of course, only three years after its initial production, this play about terminal illness (and the strength required of those who survive) began to seem prophetic. With the advent of AIDS, living with a fatal prognosis has become familiar to us all, and hospices are well-understood as humane alternatives to hospitals.

Two years ago, a high school production of The Shadow Box in Tucson was banned and withdrawn, presumably because of its shocking content. Since it illuminates the universal fear of death, something everyone would be wise to contemplate, such a ban can be attributed only to homophobia, because the play dramatizes the love of two men. If it is still too raw for Tucson, that is a measure of its relevance.

The author of The Shadow Box is the actor Michael Cristofer. His only other play of significance is Lady and a Clarinet, and some might debate that evaluation. As an actor, he writes with an empathy that descends into earnestness.

The Shadow Box presents three separate human dramas that unfold at a hospice in California that offers the dying the chance to end their lives near the beauty of nature, rather than within the white clinical confines of a medical center. New York's Circle-in-the-Square offered a revival of The Shadow Box this season, featuring Marlo Thomas and Estelle Parsons. It was generally well-received, if not well-attended. And therein lies the problem for the committed artists who make up the estimable In Mixed Company, presenting the current production in Tempe.

The format of the play is not promising. Borrowing from A Chorus Line, Cristofer uses an unseen inquisitor to interview the characters. The patients are participating in a survey whose research will lead to a better understanding of the psychological reaction to facing certain death. These scientists are interested in the families as well as the victims.

First we meet Joe, played by Michael Nixon, who wants to share his waning days with his loved ones. He has asked his wife, Maggie (Brenda Edwards), to tell their teenage son Steve (Ferdinand Torrez) of the incurable nature of his illness. But Maggie cannot communicate the news to her son because she herself cannot accept the ineluctable conclusion. In her deep denial, she cannot bring herself even to come into the cabin.

The second drama concerns a m‚nage … trois composed of writer Brian, played with fervor by Rusty Ferracane, Brian's former wife Beverly (Robyn Allen) and his current lover Mark (Michael Tassoni). Brian is secretly terrified of dying, and is able to confide this fear only to Beverly, an extroverted free spirit in the aging-love-child mode. Brian keeps up a cavalier front to Mark, a brooding hustler determined to protect Brian from anything intruding on his dignified death. Before long the boyfriend and the ex-wife have a blistering argument that dramatizes their helplessness to alleviate the pain and loneliness of the dying object of their love. Finally, there is crotchety old Felicity (played with crusty malevolence by Marie Kennedy) and her daughter Agnes. Felicity, the kind of role an actress can really sink her dentures into, pines for the return of her favorite daughter Claire, and is clinging to life in the expectation of her imminent arrival. The problem is, Claire was killed in an automobile accident several years before, although Agnes has fabricated letters from her that tell of a protracted trip in Mexico. Michelle Konevich suffers nobly as Agnes, in a role that requires noble suffering.

This dramatic triptych is interwoven into a shared time span and ground plan that contrast the characters' disparate problems and provide an interesting texture. Even so, Cristofer often is unable to lift the level of conflict much above the overwrought melodrama of afternoon-television fare.

The final moment of the play features a symphony of repeated lines borrowed from the early works of Lanford Wilson, particularly The Rimers of Eldritch, one of Cristofer's formative acting jobs.

The outstanding feature of the current production is the effective use of space. First, the unwieldy Tempe Center has been cordoned off to form an extremely hospitable performance area and a three-quarter arena with 65 seats. Then set designer Kraig Blythe has trisected the stage into a porch, a living room and a kitchen that flow together to suggest a single cabin, while delineating discrete quarters for the three stories to share. Above the set, two monitors show us close-ups of those being interviewed, presenting simultaneously subjective and objective perspectives.

Director Kevin Kerrigan has staged the play with simple dignity, honoring the fluid nature of the interweaving scenes. Unfortunately, in the second act, he has not always been able to restrain his actors from milking the emotions, so there is a good deal of shouting and arm-waving that misses the deeper concerns of the terminally ill. Still, this is a decent, straightforward and honorable revival of a play whose relevance has not yet faded. It may be a bit humorless for contemporary tastes, a bit mundane in the shadow of Angels in America, a bit superficial compared to As Is, yet The Shadow Box can still deliver an emotional punch that can move you to tears.

 
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