Shimmering Shadow

If more part-time thespians approached their craft with the skill and imagination of Steven J. Scally, community theater would be a more cheerful place to visit. If Scally launched Awake and Sing Productions -- which took its first bows last week with a revival of Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shadow Box -- to prove his talents as an actor/director, he's succeeded. And if this first production is an indication of this small company's potential, I'll be counting the days until its next program.

The Shadow Box is set in an experimental hospice wedged into an anonymous forest; there, we meet three patients, all of them dying of unnamed illnesses. In Cabin One, Joe (George Wall) is visited by his wife Maggie (Alison Ganssle) and teenaged son (Alexandro Castaneda), who doesn't yet know his father is dying. That's because Maggie refuses to admit that Joe won't be coming home, won't be surviving his illness. Next door, middle-aged Brian (Scally) is attempting to brighten his last hours with a new lover, Mark (Michael Arbuckle), and a visit from his zany ex-wife, Beverly (Toni Jourdan). She spends most of her time baiting the young man, a teetotaler and former prostitute, with booze and bitchy asides. And in Cabin Three, there's senile, wheelchair-bound Felicity (Joyce Gittoes), who's cared for by her long-suffering daughter, Agnes (April Smith), and who's hanging on in hopes of a visit from Agnes' sister.

Aside from a couple of speeches by Brian, Cristofer's dialogue is sometimes sentimental and frankly difficult to sell. It's lousy with metaphors, and hops quickly from tragedy to dark comedy -- a construct that requires skillful direction and a strong cast. Scally finesses the story's overlapping dialogue and quickly shifting vignettes, and most of his cast delivers worthy performances.

Scally himself handles Brian's comic speech about his newfound passion for work and life, in which the dying man lists his many recent mundane accomplishments, with a lighthearted melancholy. When he quickly shifts to a monologue about his fear of death -- a mawkish speech that hollers for melodrama -- Scally's reading is as real as the tears glittering in his eyes. Scally even elevates a long, silly lecture about the time that mortals waste on trivialities.

Ganssle's addled, perfectly pitched performance is all the more impressive because she plays each of her scenes with no assistance from Wall, who, as her husband, offers little more than line readings. And Joyce Gittoes once again proves that the stage is her home with a performance full of fiery anger and unscripted comedy.

It's a tribute to Gittoes' skill that she's not entirely overshadowed by April Smith, an astonishingly talented actor whose performance here is a symphony of expertly drawn emotions. Of all the people trapped in this bleak forest, her Agnes is the most pitiable -- sorry, sweet and doomed and, as played by Smith, fueled by angry passion. Smith's tense, moving performance alone is worth the trip to see The Shadow Box, a solemnly entertaining evening of theater and -- I hope -- a promise of things to come from this fledgling company.