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The Shadow Box at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 13 September 2007

The Shadow Box, written by Michael Cristofer and directed by Phoebe Moyer, is a bit of a dark horse. You think you know what the play will be about—in a very minor way, you might be right—but mostly, you’d be wrong.

Three families spread across the stage with parallel but non-intersecting stories. Each family has a terminally ill member—they search for ways to cope—they must resolve the issues in their lives in the short time which they have left.

Think you’ll cry, right? Well, you might be right about that in a few spots. So bring a hankie.

Think the subject is too sombre? Think the play will be way too depressing, so you’ll give it a miss, right? Well, there you’d be quite wrong.

One of the many things this play is is extremely funny. It’s startling how much comedy is tucked into a play about dying.

Though she is called the Interviewer, Elizabeth Smith plays the part of a therapist asking questions of the patients and the occasional family member. In the atmosphere of a private confessional engendered by a therapist’s office, we learn valuable insights into the players’ thoughts and feelings.

Kristine Lowry (playing Agnes) is the only member of the cast I have seen before and her performance in Shadow Box emphasizes how thoroughly unused she has been in some other plays—she is a woman of considerable talent. As Agnes, she plays a dutiful spinster whose mission as her mother’s caretaker is a dull job requiring only patience and a long-suffering obedience. Soon we find her straining against these constraints and we see a second Agnes—loving, anxious, and filled with passion.

Agnes is the much-abused second daughter of Felicity (played by Christine Macomber). Felicity’s illness has left her disabled and wheelchair-bound. It was positively spooky how well Felicity’s gestures recalled the hand and head movements of blind or ailing people I have known. Felicity also has that dangerous characteristic of the mentally declining: farce and truth all jumbled up together. Sometimes she’s just beyond reach—her words a shell of what communication means, but other times she’s whang-on-the-money with her remarks. Some quips are brutal but others are rolling-in-the-aisles funny. That she’s indifferent to the pain or laughter she’s causing increases its poignancy. And because you don’t know which it will be, you sit on the edge of your seat each time she opens her mouth.

Another family consists of Joe (played by Dale Camden), Maggie (played by Elizabeth Williams), and their son, Steve (played by Joshua Huston).

Joe seems a nice, innocuous guy, but as we watch his bumbling, we grow more contemptuous of him. Joe and Maggie seem a couple most notable for their failure to communicate. Maggie’s response to the crisis is quite childish. Then we meet their other failures—even their failure to acknowledge approaching death. Joe has been largely ineffectual in his working life; they have gone through a series of disasters—our scorn grows for this man whose remaining asset seems to be a radiant smile befitting a not very successful insurance salesman. His wife Maggie is a woman for whom we don’t even feel pity; she has very little to recommend her. And the son, Steve, (though there are legitimate reasons for his offhand manner) seems to think they’ve come away on a small family vacation.

In spite of our judgments, they continue talking and we are given little glimpses into their past. With each flash, our curiosity is piqued and our interest in the family grows. They aren’t paying any attention to us, we watch like a fly on the wall as they run through the well worn patterns of family jabber. They don’t seem to be changing, but we begin to care deeply for the characters. I was dumbfounded to realize how much I loved them long before the end of the play.

The third family consists of Brian (played by Jim Fyeleft, photo), his lover Mark (played by Ben Ortega) and his former wife Beverly (played by Dana Zook). This family is the zaniest which also provides the greatest opportunity for comedy. (Photo by Jerry Telfer)

Brian is the kind of intellectual one expects to meet at a party—a man full of his own opinions and eager to share his beliefs in the major philosophical issues of humankind—in tedious detail—the kind of thing we all did in our youth before we had to go out and earn a living. Over time we come to believe Brian, at least we understand that he has more than a pompous connection with reality.

Mark is a kind and gentle lover—one hopes we shall each be lucky enough to have such a friend when we are faced with our own approaching death.

Thereupon, all hell breaks loose.

Into this loving family comes Beverly, the beautiful and sexy ex-wife who (for reasons you will find out) really would be better belonging to somebody (anybody) else. She’s extravagant and unprincipled and outrageous.

Our understanding deepens. Brian turns out to have hidden traits. Beverly tells us more than we want to know about her exploits—the details are gory and embarrassing, but they’re also hilarious. Brian and Beverly reminisce and one can see how they had once been in love, and perhaps, were becoming so again. Mark watches; his feelings visible, like a simmering pot filled to the top, his jealously bubbling up like a layer of melted fat threatening to boil over into the heat and catch fire.

If the character who goes through the most change in the story is the leading character then Ben Ortega (as Mark) is the star of the show. He travels through tenderness, blazing anger, pathos and self-pity and still he makes us laugh and laugh again. He made it look so effortless I thought he wasn’t acting at all—in fact, I had to go up to him after the show to find out which parts of him were real.

The play owes much to the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying which discusses the five stages of facing death, and yet, the play is so much more. For Phoebe Moyer, this is the third time in 27 years she has directed The Shadow Box. For the audience, it’s difficult to separate the difference between the storyline of the play and the excellence of this production, but it doesn’t matter: the theatre-goer gets a lovely, uplifting experience.

In the lobby I overheard “If this is what Masquers do when they do a difficult play, I think they should do difficult plays more often.” Perhaps you see only one Masquers play every few years—definitely make The Shadow Box one of them.