The Shadow Box
Of the play's three stories about people dying, only one comes to life in this show
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Feb. 13, 2009
The Shadow Box
City Theatre, through Feb. 22
Running time: 1 hr, 50 min
I find it interesting that, while three characters in The Shadow Box are terminally ill, no one dies in this play about death. But when you consider that Michael Cristofer never informs us of the nature of their afflictions, you might conclude that Cristofer's play is not about death but rather life and the difficult choices we all must make, living and soon-to-be-dying, when forced to accept the idea that all our lives must eventually end.
The play won Cristofer a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1977. The dialogue sometimes doesn't seem special – more than a few scenes drip and ooze with self-pitying melodrama. But he uses plot devices – the omniscient interviewer who appears primarily as a disembodied voice, direct audience address, and simultaneous action – that still draw interest now, so most certainly they must have seemed special 30 years ago.
Cristofer tells three separate stories in the play, but in the North by Northwest Theatre Company production, only one of them really works. Felicity, an old woman both blind and seemingly senile, wants nothing more than to see her daughter Claire before she dies. Her other daughter, Agnes, who cares for Felicity, knows that her mother will never see Claire again but has kept the information from her. Worse, she has actively promoted Felicity's delusion by – well, I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that when the interviewer tells Agnes that Felicity is most likely willing herself to live strictly in the hopes of seeing Claire again, Agnes must make a choice: Either tell the old woman the truth about her beloved daughter or continue nurturing her painful delusion. Director Kyle Evans was either very smart or very lucky (or both) in his casting: Anne Putnam totally convinces as the dying Felicity, and Miriam Rubin could easily pass as Putnam's daughter. More importantly, Rubin quietly and believably makes Agnes' agony palpable. Rubin made me feel her pain, and you can't ask for more from an actor than that.
The other two stories, one about a gay writer, cared for by his lover, and his reunion with his former wife, and one about a dying husband whose wife cannot come to terms with the fact of his dying don't fare as well for various reasons. Evans plays most of the story about the husband and wife on the apron of the stage. Just making a story humanly compelling is difficult enough, but making one visually compelling is doubly difficult when you have your actors acting in what amounts to an alley. Add in, variously, actors who don't appear to know their lines, deliver their lines in a singsong fashion, or don't have any idea what to do with their hands, as well as an out-of-control tempo, and you have a lot of show that simply doesn't work. While the production features some other effective performances, none of them do enough to save Cristofer's story about life and the living of it.