An ex of mine once detailed his mother’s slow death from cancer, noting how her final month was spent indoors with family around trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. “I’m sure it was awful for her,” he said, “but for us it was a kind of blessing. We had time to say all of the things that needed to be said before she was gone. People who die unexpectedly in an accident don’t have that privilege.” It’s that privilege that is the core of Adrenaline Theatre Group’s production of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, a play first produced forty years ago about three families dealing with loved ones suffering from terminal illnesses.
The Shadow Box takes on the grounds of a hospital where three patients are residing in cabins awaiting their imminent deaths. There is Joe, a big, tough-looking guy, with a wife and son; Brian, an older gay man being cared for by his much younger boyfriend; and Felicity, an angry woman hiding within thick sunglasses and a turban, cared for by one of her daughters. One by one these patients consent to interviews by an unseen psychologist (Travis Horseman, who sounds like he is reading and has no bedside manner). During these sessions, I had the same feeling I had when seeing A Chorus Line; it was as if Joe, Brian, and Felicity were dancers auditioning not for a part in a Broadway show but for death itself. It’s an odd conceit in this production directed by Chad Hewitt, but not a bad one. The set design by Brendan Michna includes large empty frames, a rather heavy-handed reference to the title of the play. Shadow boxes are used to store and display mementos or photos to remind one of a particular time or event; the relevance here is that these three patients have limited time remaining in which to create any memories, their cabins being their final homes before they pass on – the cabins themselves serving as metaphors for shadow boxes (that’s how I interpreted it anyway).
It’s the performances of three women that make this production worth seeing: Jennifer Feather Youngblood as Beverly, Audrey Rush as Maggie, and Julie Azelvandre as Felicity. Ms. Youngblood plays tipsy and giggly extremely well, and she brings much needed energy into her scenes with ex-husband Brian (Jim Azelvandre, who is trying way too hard) and Brian’s lover and caretaker, Mark (John Connor, as darkly handsome as he is stoic). Ms. Youngblood doesn’t just say lines – she feels and recites them rather adroitly, seeming to be in on a private joke for which everyone else is oblivious.
Ms. Rush is a doting and smart-mouthed, Jersey-sounding housewife, quick to change the subject when it turns to her husband Joe (Scott Douglas Wilson, epitomizing the look of every forty-year-old’s dad in the 1970s) and his illness. Ms. Rush has a speed and immediacy that builds tension, coming to a head in a moment of violence that is shocking because it is so out-of-character but real for the moment. In fact, each of the three interwoven stories have a similar explosion of emotion that is sharp and focused, so intense that I looked away and closed my eyes each time because they seemed so raw and naked.
Ms. Azelvandre is the wheelchair-bound Felicity, hanging on to life for a daughter who will never visit while ignoring Agnes (Cat McAlpine, also quite good as her exhausted caretaker), the daughter who stayed behind. I did a double take when I saw Ms. Azelvandre’s photo in the program as she is unrecognizable in her role, disappearing into a web of bitter contrariness and sickness, looking somewhat like a defeated Anne Bancroft. Her performance is the closest to what we all fear having to experience with our parents, one of a slow winding down into a kind of dreamworld in which we don’t play a part.
The Shadow Box is the kind of play that is sure to affect people in different ways; it’s a work that allows for interpretation while also being accessible purely on what is on the surface. This production has some really terrific performances, and it’s far funnier than one might surmise based on the subject matter. What’s notable is that the best parts and performances on display here are for and by women, something unfortunately rare in theatre and worthy of celebrating.