The Shadow Box | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Shadow Box


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Acme Arts Company and Hobo Theatre

at Big Game Theatre

With the Middle East conflict wreaking its toll, the agony of thousands threatens to overwhelm the trauma of any one death. Even so, that end-of-the-world panic remains--"Not me!" It's any individual's astonished response to an abstraction that becomes concrete faster than the mind can take it in.

The Shadow Box can't make sense of collective insanity--not even All Quiet on the Western Front could do that. But its fully felt portrayal of dying humans can restore, if temporarily, the emotional proportion between massive body counts and death's eternal singularity.

Michael Cristofer's 1977 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play covers one day in the dwindling lives of three terminally ill patients living in cottages on the grounds of a large hospital. The "shadow box" of the title might refer to the contrast between pretense and reality, to pugilistic evasions, or to the coffin itself. Each mortal is at a different stage of accepting the inevitable, and is surrounded by loved ones who impede or advance that resignation.

All three are interviewed documentary-style by an unseen clinician (who resembles Zach, the gentle interrogator of the "gypsies" in A Chorus Line). The interviews pull out confessions, a bit schematically, which the scenes that follow emotionally amplify.

Joe, a middle-aged, salt-of-the-earth type, is scared and angry and tired of dealing daily with people who are not dying and who try to deny what he has painfully come to accept. Exhibit A is his wife, Maggie. Much more frightened than Joe, Maggie defensively chatters away as she unloads a ton of unnecessary groceries on the porch--but she refuses to enter the cottage. She hasn't told their teenage son, Steve, that his father is dying, and as a result Steve hasn't seen his father in six months. The fact is she can't face his death herself: "It's too fast!" She wants Joe to come home, as if restoring the daily routine would restore his health.

In a later, healing scene, Maggie and Joe page through a photo album and inventory their gains and losses. Joe wonders, "What was it for?" Maggie answers the question just by being there.

Brian lives in the second cottage. A failed writer, he's determined to die at the last possible moment and not a second before. He wants to "leave nothing undone" and to "use it all up." Intent on sticking to essentials and seizing whatever opportunities remain ("You always think you have more time--and you never do"), he's writing like crazy--four autobiographies and 136 epitaphs. (This could be another form of denial, of course, but medicine is where you find it.)

Caring for Brian is his handsome lover, Mark, a former hustler whom Brian took in, fed, and encouraged to read; in return Mark is there to catch him when he falls, clean up when he soils his sheets, and make him know his loss will not be his alone.

The arrival of Beverly, Brian's alcoholic, nymphomaniacal ex-wife, shakes up the lovers; she wants to reclaim her former husband emotionally. Her inevitable fight with Mark tests his love for Brian and convinces Beverly that Mark is good for Brian after all. "Don't hurt him with your hopes," Beverly counsels as she leaves. At the end Mark just holds Brian; their bond is deeper than talk.

The third cottage belongs to the ironically named Felicity, a bitter, pain-wracked old woman who tyrannizes her self-effacing spinster daughter, Agnes. Mercifully anesthetized by her own senility, Felicity clings to letters supposedly written by another daughter who died years before. But Agnes is writing them; she consoles her mother by completely obliterating her own identity.

Sadly, in this cottage the person who's truly ready to let go of life is not the one who's dying. But Agnes's self-sacrifice will make her mother's passing peaceful; the truth never could. And even if Agnes's plight sounds like something our of O. Henry, it's also tellingly poignant: a sister resurrects her dead sibling as the only way to tell her mother how much she loves her.

Like Thornton Wilder in the valedictory third act of Our Town, Cristofer delicately interweaves these different ways of dying, contrasting Felicity's death-in-life with Joe's difficult surrender with Brian's desire to blaze before the darkness. Their accommodations ring true in Deborah Maddox's staging, an honest and concentrated revival by Acme Arts Company (in conjunction with Hobo Theatre). Maddox, who also designed the efficient multilevel set, evokes in her mainly young cast the illusion of years of hard-earned experience.

The strongest of a strong cast are David Shapiro and Ann Fuhrman; though they're younger than their roles, their Joe and Maggie are bedrock real, as convincing as if they were appearing in a documentary. Young Kevin J. Count gives teenage Steve immediacy and supplies a sweet guitar accompaniment to the scenes.

Robert Kane plays life-affirming Brian with tenacious dignity and palpable intelligence. Though Brian's struggle with death should be intensified by Beverly's possessive disruption, Tara Blau unfortunately blunts that contrast by emphasizing the wacko hedonist over the threatened spouse. Like Blau, Mark Talley occasionally milks pauses for more than they're worth; but overall he's solidly supportive as Brian's scared but loyal lover. (The character evokes that unsung brigade who stand by their men as they die of AIDS.)

Though Bette D. Kimmel effectively conveys Felicity's crotchety anger and Alzheimer's-induced absences, she's less skilled at suggesting this much-doctored woman's pain and weariness. Fortunately, Natasha Lowe has vulnerable Agnes's defenses down perfectly; if tears are proof, Lowe has sunk herself into the role as deeply as a playwright could demand.

Soon we'll all be dealing with a lot of death. This play can't help but help.

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