Theater Review: A Terminal Diagnosis; Now What?
The impulse toward life is so powerful that we’ll make any bargain, make any promise, fight almost any battle to live even one more day. But what happens when you’ve been given a terminal diagnosis and think you know, more or less, when you’re going to die? How do you confront it, and how do you help the people around you to face it?
Michael Cristofer’s play The Shadow Box , which won both the Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1977, centers on the dilemma of three dying cancer patients living in cottages on the grounds of a hospital on the West Coast. It’s not called a hospice, but that’s the standard of care. Director Kevin Fitzpatrick and the Parish Players have staged a faithful revival of the drama, which runs through Nov. 24 at the Grange in Thetford.
The three patients, in various stages of their diseases, contend with visits from family. Joe’s wife Maggie and young son Steven have flown in from the East to see him, but Steven doesn’t know of his father’s illness, and Maggie is determined to evade the issue entirely.
Felicity, in the grip of dementia, believes that her daughter Claire is still alive and coming to see her; a delusion that her other daughter Agnes fosters by sending her mother letters in Claire’s name.
Brian, who left his wife Beverly for his lover Mark, is determined to ignore cancer as much as he can, by embracing what life he has left. When Beverly, brash and cynical, visits Brian, conflict inevitably arises between her and Mark. Then there’s a therapist, heard but never seen, who uses the Socratic method to elicit information and self-analysis from her patients.
At the time, the play must have seemed audacious in its frank treatment of death and sexuality. It wasn’t until 1979 that the hospice movement began to take hold when 26 hospice programs were initiated nationwide, according to the Hospice Care and Palliative Care Organization. And while death hovers over nearly every important American play of the 20th century, to have characters discuss their diagnoses, symptoms and miseries with such withering frankness was pioneering.
Further, gay and lesbian characters in the American theater were either thinly veiled (Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie , the two women teachers in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour ) or not present at all. Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band , which premiered on Broadway in 1970, was the first drama in which gay men weren’t secondary characters, or their sexuality telegraphed to the audience with a wink, a nod and a broadly choreographed swish.
Although The Shadow Box is rarely mentioned in histories of gay theater — it’s not specifically a play about gay men, after all — it certainly advanced how gay men were depicted on stage, by virtue of having two men talk frankly about their love for each other, and their sexual life together.
But 36 years later, The Shadow Box ’s approach to both sex and death is just dated enough that its dramatic impact is diminished. It’s not entirely Cristofer’s fault that it was blown out of the water by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America , which both dissects and glories in the connection between mortality and sexuality with mordant humor, spiky, febrile language and unstoppable momentum. Angels in America outshines Cristofer’s fondness for somewhat earnest theatrical monologues that often impede the play’s dramatic progression; so much is at stake in The Shadow Box, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
While the relationship between the two men in The Shadow Box did break ground, nearly 40 years later the contrast between intellectual writer Brian and earthy Mark, who was hustling when he first met Brian, feels programmed rather than authentic. Ditto the good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth working folks that are Joe and Maggie, who speak here with a New Yawk or New Joysey accent about their suburban, middle-class lives in ways that feel predictable.
Charlie Buttrey, as Joe, and Darby Hiebert, as Maggie, try to forge a connection but they are bogged down in the limitations of their parts. Kian Kaufman, in the role of Steven, is natural, funny and unaffected, persuasive because he doesn’t try to “act.”
Kurt Feuer, who plays Brian, strikes the right balance between cerebral detachment and physical deterioration; as Mark, Joe Guarino does the best he can with a part that seems over written. Laine Gillespie, as Beverly, is a skilled comedian, but she’s occasionally too broad with a part that’s not just about physical comedy.
The two characters who raise the ante are Felicity and Agnes, beautifully played by Janet Eller and Linda Neubelt, respectively. Felicity veers between raging at her condition and pitifully asking when Claire is coming home. Eller is fierce and uncompromising in her portrayal of a woman at the very end of her life, while Neubelt has an understated pathos and compassion that matches Eller’s fury. Deecie Dennison ably supplies the cool, but not unsympathetic voice of the off-stage therapist.
This is the second time that the Parish Players have revived a play that they’ve done earlier. The Shadow Box was first performed by the troupe in 1980. Plays are reinterpreted all the time, and directors can shed a fresh, revealing light on dramas that seem to have outlived their expiration date. That’s not the case here.
Is The Shadow Box a terrible play? No. But is it a great play? No. So why revive something workmanlike when there are so many plays, old and new, that can command an audience’s attention?
“The Shadow Box” continues through Nov. 24 at the Grange in Thetford. For tickets call 802-785-4344. For information go to www.parishplayers.org.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.