Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A review of The Shadow Box

ICCT - Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box succeeds in tackling a very demanding and difficult piece of theatre and creating an entertaining and honestly emotionally moving experience.

According to the program, this play was first produced in 1975 in Los Angeles at a time when the Hospice Movement and the ideas behind it were just beginning to find a place in the medical community. The script is alas somewhat dated, following too tight and didactic a structure based on Helen Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief which she detailed in her book, On Death and Dying. It was published just six years before the play premiered. At the time, these defined stages were not as commonly known, but thirty-two years later the text challenges actors and directors to no longer educate audiences but remind them.

The Shadow Box tells the stories of three very different families dealing with a terminal illness. The action takes place in three cottages on the grounds of a hospice. We are first introduced to Joe (Rip Russell), his wife Maggie (Kathy Maxey), and their son, Steve (Sam Schlesinger).

The dynamic between Joe and Maggie is perhaps the strongest and most well defined of the three. Both actors turn in fantastic performances fully invested vocally, physically, and emotionally.

Newcomer to ICCT Schlesinger does a good job of grounding the story and presenting in less selfish terms just what stakes are involved. He also provides music during intermission and at the end of the play where the repetition of a familiar piece of music proves haunting.

The second family is less traditionally structured with Jeff Emrich playing Brian, a man spending his final days with his lover and friend, Mark (Pat Keyes). Their pattern of caretaking and living every day as the last one is broken by the arrival of ex-wife Beverly (Angela Ayres).

Their story is the most overwritten and focused on educating the audience. This pulled me away from the play at times. The young Ayres was also an interesting casting choice for a character that was described as a bit of a shabby, worn-around-the-edges, former party girl straight from an Elvis Costello song.

During one of the scenes in this cottage, one of the most important elements of the play became apparent and, because of Keyes haunting and subtle performance, a simple and sad epiphany occurred to me. Even when the characters seem to be having a dialogue, they are working things out, out loud and to themselves, only barely engaged with the people around them. When dealing with your own mortality, or the impending death of one you love, in many ways you suffer alone. There is so much you cannot or will not share so as not to burden those you love. When the actors understood this, the scenes were incredibly powerful. While there were moments the staging, language, and just possibly the temptation to be more theatrical got in the way, these moments were very few.

The third story is that of an older woman, Felicity (Evelyn Stanske), and her daughter Agnes (Mary Johnson). The performances in this story were wonderful, but I confess to having found the story itself a bit less honest and original than the others.

Rounding out the cast was Gerry Roe as the Interviewer, who was simply a voice from another room coaxing the characters to share their grief and feelings. Roe’s voice alone creates a powerful presence on the stage.

The staging of the show was also very impressive and created a very nice snapshot when walking into the theater itself. I often wonder why more directors don’t consider the impact of this first impression. Director Luis Sierra definitely created a spatial tableau that intrigued and informed of us of the empty spaces that would lie between the characters.

Without The Shadow Box, we might not have gotten more recent plays like The Normal Heart and As Is in the late 1980s and Marvin’s Room in the 1990s. These plays furthered our artistic discussions of death and dying and drew on the more public knowledge of the process of grief.
The Shadow Box deserves to be performed again, and thanks to Sierra and cast and crew, most of the arguments for relegating it to a history of American theatre textbooks are proven wrong. Because of its age and subject, it is impossible to do this play well without a love and respect for the characters. It was obvious that the actors all had a great respect for the story they were telling.

--Matthew Brewbaker

Matthew Brewbaker spent many years as artistic Director of Dreamwell Theatre and has directed and appeared in many Dreamwell Theatre and Iowa City Community Theatre productions. He studied experimental theater at New York University.

(Photo one is Pat Keyes and Angela Ayres. Photo two is Sam Schlesinger)

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