Once again I find myself at the inaugural production for a new theatre company. This time it’s Center City Theatre Works’ moving preview production of Michael Cristofer’s award-winning play, THE SHADOW BOX. It was a perfect choice for its inaugural production. Everything about this production worked. It did what good theatre should always do: give impetus and power to the playwright’s words, and it did it remarkably well.
Cristofer’s play about three terminally ill patients and their families is hardly maudlin because it is so familiar—universal even. If anything, this play is uplifting. Bring tissues, though, for some well-deserved tears.
We’ve all have tried coping with a loved one’s impending death, or know someone who has. If we’re young enough and haven’t yet, we will. At times the play makes us laugh and cry with our characters; it builds to a wonderful intensity; it is always thought-provoking. The words tell a universal truth so well that it’s not surprising that this play won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New American Play as well as Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Stellar acting, tight blocking and fluid pacing of this production kept me caring about these people through every scene, following every gesture, and listening keenly to every word. The set was a fascinating combination of art and utility; the silhouette cut-outs of trees in the backdrop to give us the shadow box effect and the versatility of four separate acting areas. That and the lighting design combined to do what a shadow box is designed to do: allow light to pass through from only one angle (and this is significant) so that objects within the box are less susceptible to damage from light.
Much like the human beings here, we are damaged by too much light. We believe what we want to believe to cope with pain. Love and selfish desires compete, and give rise to the “five different stages that a person will go through when he faces the fact of his own death.” But we discover here that we aren’t just talking about the people who are facing dying, but those who care about them as well. We plainly see the same five stages spelled out by E. Kubler-Ross, M.D apply to them as well: “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.” Acceptance as you might guess is the hardest stage for the loved ones to deal with—the patients themselves having mostly come to terms with their impending deaths.
Kubler-Ross also says, “These stages will last for different periods of time, they will replace each other, or exist at times side by side…But the one thing that usually persists through all these stages is hope.”
A tribute to the playwright’s finely crafted play and astute direction of Jeffrey Lesser, THE SHADOW BOX invites us to experience the lives of three very different families and brings us to the same place through an intricate weaving of their stories, better prepared for an experience closer to home, or at least the realization that this is how we behave and it is normal.
We live our lives as if they will have no end, believing there’s always time to do more. When we discover that awful truth, that life on this earth with all who are dear to us is not infinite, then we rely on hope, one little ray of light to save us. At that moment, we live in the Shadow Box.
I found this production to be a nearly flawless gem. One costume needed some tucks and tightening to prevent a “wardrobe malfunction” (not that it wouldn’t have been in character, but for audience blushing reasons…) but I’m sure that’ll be taken care of before open tomorrow night. Other than that very minor detail, this remarkable theatre gem was truly an experience and a future comfort for my soul.
Is it so strange that a play that is about death is also about the fragility and resistance of the human spirit? The human spirit–fragile enough to deny and give false hope, and resistant enough to hold off dying to give oneself the time to realize the hope is warranted? Good theatre art exposes human frailty and highlights the human dilemma; in the end we all feel better. We call it catharsis.
My congratulations to a standout cast and crew for a job well done.
THE SHADOW BOX
by Michael Cristofer
Directed by Jeffrey Lesser
May 4 – 21, 2011
Center City Theatre Works
Upstairs at the Adrienne
2030 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103