Life Over Death
Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box successfully navigates the tricky shoals separating comedy and pathos.
Thursday, May 3, 2001
Every once in a while, you come across a production that''s so good that it''s hard to find the right words to praise it. Michael Cristofer''s The Shadow Box, now playing at the Magic Circle Center, is one of those rare gems.
It always helps to begin with a good script, and producer/artistic director Elsa Con certainly did that: Shadow Box, Cristofer''s play about three terminally ill people and their loved ones, won a Pulitzer prize in 1977. It''s a beautiful piece of theater that glistens with truthful emotion. Anyone who''s been around someone who''s dying knows that each moment is fragile--a single word can provoke laughter or tears, and Cristofer''s script walks this tightrope between humor and sentiment without going too far in either direction.
The story is set on the grounds of a large hospital in Northern California that has cottages for its terminally ill patients. In the first cottage, we are introduced to Joe (Bob Lake), a middle-age guy whose wife (Laura Coté) and teenage son (Michael Provence) come to share his last days. In the second, mediocre wordsmith Brian (Robert Colter) is ensconced with his lover (J.T. Holmstrom) when his former wife (Deirdre McCauley) pays a whirlwind visit. And in the third cottage, Felicity (Jill Jackson), an old woman hanging by a thread, spends her last days with dutiful daughter Agnes (Sherry Kefalas) while awaiting the arrival of favored daughter Claire.
Through it all, an offstage interviewer (Garland Thompson) quizzes the characters, probing their inner feelings. As the play begins, each story unfolds serially--as Shadow Box progresses, the stories increasingly overlap until they come to a simultaneous conclusion. Both in construction and in content, Shadow Box is a noteworthy script.
But a good script is only the starting point for a good performance. Here, director Robin McKee fulfills the script''s promise, creating a tight ensemble piece that feels both personal and universal. She is aided by set designer Laura Coté and lighting designer Jim Griffin, who make excellent use of the Magic Circle''s limited stage, creating a single set with cutaway walls that spiral to create a generic cottage interior, as well as an exterior space in the shadow of trees that connote the play''s rural setting.
The performances are so evenly excellent that it''s nearly impossible to name any one that really stands out. But perhaps the splashiest performance is Jill Jackson''s as the blind, trembling, wheelchair-bound Felicity--you''re not really aware of the depth of Jackson''s performance until she scampers from her chair for curtain call.
There''s not room to give credit to all the actors for their performances. For that, my apologies. On the other hand, perhaps that''s the highest tribute that can be paid to this kind of show: In an ensemble production there are no stars--the actors must selflessly work together to reach maximum effectiveness. And, in this production, the cast''s teamwork pays rich dividends.
The sniffles I heard in the audience, as well as the laughter, lead me to believe I was not alone in being moved by this production. In the final moments of the play, all the characters provide a choral accompaniment to Brian''s closing monologue. Through the anger, the fear and the sadness, there is a shared realization that although they are dying, there are still experiences and emotions to be savored right to the bittersweet last breath--and each moment is made all the more precious by death''s impending arrival.
In the end, Shadow Box is a play that''s as much about living as it is about dying. Magic Circle''s production is worth seeing more than once.
The Shadow Box plays Friday-Saturday (7:30pm) and Sunday (2pm) through May 13 at the Magic Circle Center, 8 El Caminito in Carmel Valley. Tickets cost $15 ($13 for seniors). For reservations or more info, call 659-1108.