BWW Review: THE SHADOW BOX at Little Theatre Of Mechanicsburg
THE SHADOW BOX was written by Michael Cristofer, and debuted on Broadway on March 31st, 1977 at the Morosco Theatre. It later went on to win two major awards in the same year, the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play. Cristofer adapted the script into a teleplay directed by Paul Newman in 1980, which was nominated for three Emmys (Outstanding Drama Special, Teleplay Adaptation, and Director) and received a Golden Globe Award. The show follows three very diverse patients who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses. They all reside in three separate cabins on the grounds of a hospital, and frequently partake in interviews with an unseen Interviewer throughout the show. Their individual struggles with illness as well as the toll taken on their families is the driving force behind THE SHADOW BOX, and Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg has made sure to display these challenges in the most emotionally stirring light possible.
The first patient to be examined by THE SHADOW BOX is Joe, portrayed by Ron Nason. From the beginning, Nason displays a very workable range of emotion; while his anger towards his situation is earnest and believable, Nason seems to be much more comfortable in his more calm, contemplative moments. He is a man who is not only concerned for himself, but also for the well-being of his wife and daughter. Nason creates a very dedicated Joe, one who is affectionate and patient towards his wife Maggie and daughter Stevie and who is determined to give them all of the love he possibly can despite his worsening condition. Despite appearing to have come to terms with his illness and not wanting to deny the inevitable, Joe as portrayed by Nason clearly has not given up on his dreams. His sincerity is perhaps Nason's greatest feature as an actor; he gives the audience a Joe that still wants to give his family the world, and displays this wholeheartedly, to the point where Joe almost seems breathless under both the weight of reality and hope for the future.
Aside from moments of repetitive motions and inflections, Nason appears to embody the character of Joe quite well. He could benefit, however, from finding the right moments to push the envelope in terms of emotion while other times acknowledging when to back down, and there are occasions when his acting style seems a bit forced. That being said, Nason's Joe is a family man at heart, and this is a man that the audience can find in their own lives and one that they want to see smiling despite the pain. Joe's wife, Maggie, is played by Kristen Borgersen Ottens, and does a wonderful job bringing this woman's many conflicting emotions and feelings to the surface. Ottens' Maggie is sensitive yet strong, a very orderly, talkative, and particular kind of mother that audience members can often relate to another woman in their lives. Her acting style and mannerisms are familiar to the audience due to their realistic nature, and this allows them to connect and empathize with her. Ottens does an exceptional job of illustrating the emotional toll that illness can take on the spouse of the afflicted; she is in obvious denial of what will become of her husband, and her despair nearly always seems real despite her character's valiant effort to keep herself together, made possible partly through Ottens's use of realistic facial expressions.
Ottens and Nason must balance the emotional ebb and flow of their characters as each one struggles to understand and comfort the other, and they do this extremely well. Joe and Maggie are desperately trying to rekindle their flame, but are obviously afraid to do so in the face of Joe's illness. A spark still exists between them; their love is still alive, but it is hanging in the balance of the inevitable truth that Joe is dying. They share memories, they argue, they break down into each other's arms, and this all contributes to a touching yet tense relationship. This chemistry between them is also put into perspective when one remembers their daughter, Stevie. Portrayed by Stephanie Via, Stevie is an instantly likable and perfectly realistic teenager, though Via is noticeably older than sixteen. Despite this, Via is able to play a younger character quite convincingly through her rushed, excitable speech patterns and inflections. Her large and free physical motions also contribute to the playful yet sarcastic sense of youth that Via brings to Stevie. Additionally, Via is able to channel sadness, concern, and worry just as easily as she can put on a positive attitude, and this makes her particularly commendable. While she doesn't get as much stage time as the other characters, audiences find themselves becoming quite fond of Joe and Maggie's daughter, and this is thanks to Via's energetic portrayal.
The second cabin on the hospital grounds is inhabited by a more unconventional couple, Brian and Mark. Portrayed by Gordon Einhorn and Paul Henry respectively, the two lovers are surprised by the arrival of Brian's ex-wife, Beverly, who shakes the foundations of their once relatively stable arrangement. As the afflicted character, Einhorn's Brian is purposefully pretentious. He boasts a wealth of intelligence, and is by no means afraid to wield it by way of his posture and vocal cadence. Brian is a man whose wisdom has come from age and education, and he appears to find no greater pleasure than sharing what he knows. Both the actor and the character are incredibly self-aware, accepting the reality they've been given and giving all their effort towards making the best of it. Einhorn crafts a Brian who is unafraid of his true feelings, and chooses to embrace them for all they're worth. He is unabashedly talkative, and somehow remains optimistic despite his grim prognosis. However, Einhorn seizes upon moments where doubt begins to slip through the cracks in Brian's intellectual facade, and these moments often resonate very strongly with the audience. His blow-ups are a result of mounting frustration that Einhorn expertly builds, and his character could have even sounded crazy in these moments if the audience wasn't aware of his situation. The majority of his time, however, is spent being particular and meticulous, characteristics that are exactly the opposite of his ex-wife, Beverly.
Played by Catherine Tyson-Osif, Beverly is loud and proud right from the very beginning. Her exceptional physicality and facial expressions drive her character, combining with her bold personality to mark her as the life of the party. Tyson-Osif is animated nearly every second that she is onstage, and uses both tons of energy and a comfortable stage presence to facilitate her character's wild behavior that is only further influenced by alcohol and drugs. Tyson-Osif's Beverly possesses a particular affinity for showing off and is no stranger to promiscuity, not to mention her ability to remain almost perpetually upbeat and peppy. She is a character that the audience is amused by, but not one that they necessarily initially like, and this indicates that Tyson-Osif has achieved her goal as an actor. However, as energetic and carefree as Beverly can be, moments where she radiates anger and indignance are just as real and even more powerful, showcasing Tyson-Osif's admirable range of emotion.
Her interactions with Brian and Mark are diverse and logical, as they should be. Beverly and Mark develop an awkward chemistry tinged with a hint of animosity from the start, and for good reason. Arguments between them are interesting, as each are strong of will and passionate when it comes to Brian's well-being. Their more heated discussions are intense and thought-provoking, as each actor shows commendable versatility in these changes in their character's attitudes. They begin by acting equally snide with each other, and each appear jealous of the other as they compete for Brian's attention. However, there does not seem to be much competition, as Brian and Beverly are obviously enamored with each other when they are together, and are much more amicable than one would expect, given their situation. Although they are no longer married, both seem enthralled with the other, each caring deeply about the lives of the other and sharing a relationship that has developed nicely from romance to a strong friendship that Tyson-Osif and Einhorn display very well. They are complete opposites, but combine these differences together well to create a great pair.
That then leaves Paul Henry as Mark, a character who is equally as dynamic as both Brian and Beverly. He initially appears almost righteous and morally superior, using a defensive, yet "mightier-than-thou" attitude when addressing Beverly. Henry's Mark is straightforward and no-nonsense, his character always seeming to possess an anger boiling just below the surface that he will eventually let spill out. Mark thrives on a brooding attitude, one that is understandable when paired with his palpable concern for Brian. He is completely unamused with Beverly's antics, contributing greatly to the uncomfortable relationship that they share. He is forced to watch the friendly interactions between Brian and Beverly, and Henry portrays a Mark that succeeds in appearing jealous of his lover's ex-wife, especially when Brian pushes him away. Henry's anger starts off in need of a push in the second act, but he progressively works his way up to an emotional breakdown that is incredibly well done. His myriad of facial expressions and tense physicality is exactly what Henry needed in order to take his onstage emotions to the next level, and these elements also aide him in bringing out Mark's tender side. His fondness of Brian is incredibly touching, and the audience gets the sense that Mark considers himself undeserving of Brian's affection in return. Henry becomes much more genuine as the act goes on, and his eventual breakdown is both impressive and moving, as is the nature of THE SHADOW BOX.
Finally, the audience is introduced to the elderly Felicity and her daughter, Agnes. Their situation is a heartbreaking one, and Kimberly M. Jones (Felicity) and Anne Marino (Agnes) embrace this quality of their tale very well. Jones brings to the table a Felicity who is cranky, bitter, and cynical to the bone. Jones seems natural in this attitude, but could benefit from putting a bit more energy into her performance, as much as her character could allow. Her line delivery occasionally comes across as a bit static, but Jones redeems herself in creating a Felicity that is as impatient and loudmouthed as physically possible. Her deteriorating condition has made her eccentric and astoundingly inappropriate at some instances and remarkably sad and depressed at others, highlighting Felicity's unstable mind. She is far from appreciative, and apparently has no qualms when it comes to yelling at her daughter Agnes rather than thanking her for her hard work. Jones demonstrates a thorough understanding of her character's illness, focusing on her delusions of her other daughter, Claire, whom Felicity has not seen in years. This separation has fostered a longing that Jones incorporates well into her character's psyche, and this makes her actions a bit easier to tolerate when the audience finds themselves frustrated with Felicity's treatment of her daughter. Jones handles Felicity's slow fade quite well, transforming her from a crass, foul-mouthed woman to a quiet, sunken shell of her former self.
Anne Marino plays opposite Jones as Felicity's daughter, Agnes, a character that the audience cannot help but love. She is a foil of her mother in perhaps every way imaginable: obedient, caring, and timid to the end. Marino does a particularly excellent job in portraying Agnes as a woman who is hopelessly devoted to her mother, willing to put up with any unpleasant treatment she may get for the sake of maintaining Felicity's health. Marino's Agnes is practical and dutiful, and the audience cares for her in part because of how much she cares for her mother. Her faith in the future is almost inspiring, and her confession later on in the show is nothing short of powerful. Marino shows true talent as a storyteller, weaving Agnes's past before the audience in a way intrigues them and makes them ache for the fate of this character. Jones does a nearly perfect job in creating the selfless nature of Agnes through nervous body posture and sincere line delivery, as well as a remarkable natural stage presence. Portraying Agnes as a typically soft-spoken character allows for occasions where she becomes angry herself all the more significant. Her character is one that the audience shares an incredibly amount of empathy for, and her raw emotion is some of the best in the show. She shares a relationship with her mother that many children must endure when their parents' health begins to fail, and these relatable instances are just some of the power behind the emotional blows dealt in THE SHADOW BOX.
Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg presents a show that does not shy away from the prospect of death. In fact, it attacks this subject head-on through relationships between characters that are unabashedly real. This is the kind of show that makes the audience feel an urge to call someone that they love, and reminds them that nothing in this world should be taken for granted. The talent displayed by each member of the cast results in performances that gave the heartstrings a sharp tug, and left several audience members in tears. While each shining on their own, moments where the cast works in harmony, whether in pairs or all together, are some of the most poinant in the show. Combined with a very ornate and realistic set, the quality of this production at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg is the result of obvious dedication and understanding of the nature of this show. THE SHADOW BOX is not a feel-good story, but there is never an absence of emotion. Of course, seeing as tissues are handed out at the door, this should not come as a surprise.
Presented by Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg through May 14th. Next is THE IMPOSSIBLE YEARS. Visit ltmpa.com.