BWW Review: THE SHADOW BOX Hurts So Good at Gene Frankel Theater
Who knew that demise could border on delightful? Although any one of the mortality-mindful tales portrayed in The Shadow Box would serve as a viable brink from which one could face death, three stories converge to create a powerful and entertaining metanarrative nexus where life meets loss, love challenges longing, and truth holds fast in the shadows. In both dramatic form and visceral feeling, The Shadow Box from Regeneration Theatre takes hold early and never lets go.
Crackling dialogue, timeless subject matter and confident characters bolster the relevance of this two-act revival of the 1977 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama from playwright Michael Cristofer. Within the narrow space afforded by the Frankel Theater, Director Marcus Gualberto has assembled an expert cast that evokes a full range of emotions with ample intimacy. Samantha Cancellarich (Set Design) and Domino Mannheim (Lighting Design) use the interplay of minimal set pieces and lightness/darkness to set the mood.
An unseen/unnamed character (identified in the playbill as "Interviewer") is an omniscient voice who occasionally speaks directly to characters in a tone that seems more interested in gentle inquiry than interrogation or intervention.
Within this community of cabins we meet three families, each with a member who is terminally ill. Joe (Jon Spano) and his wife, Maggie (Nikole Marone) debate the merits of divulging his condition to their teenage guitar-playing son, Steven (Leonard Rose) while they reflect on the life they could have had, the life they have, and the future version that is out of reach. In the meantime, Joe is double-burdened with job loss and precipitous healthcare:
Joe: "You get tired of keeping it all inside. But it's like, nobody wants to hear about it. You know what I mean? Even the doctors...they shove a thermometer in your mouth and a stethoscope in their ears...How the hell are you supposed to say anything? But then, like I said, you get used to it...I guess..."
By his side (and lugging a huge ham) is his devoted wife. Maggie's pain becomes our pain; the ache in her voice is palpable.
Maggie: "No. I want you to come home. What is this place, anyway? They make everything so nice. Why? So you forget? I can't. I want you to come home. I want you to stay out four nights a week bowling, and then come home so I can yell and not talk to you, you son of a bitch. I want to fight so you'll take me to a movie and by the time I get you to take me I'm so upset I can't enjoy the picture...
Next door, comic relief stumbles in when Beverly (the boozy and bombastic Nicole Greevy) visits her former husband, Brian (Robert Maisonett). She is not exactly welcomed by the fiercely protective Mark (Cameron Tharma), a former San Francisco hustler who is now Brian's caretaker with benefits. Mark and Beverly's struggle to find common ground begins with few words...
Beverly: "So how is he?"
Mark: "Dying. How are you?"
...and never quite recovers as they lose sight of what's at stake: Brian's perspective on what really matters to him.
BRIAN: "...all this..this is easy. Pain, discomfort...that's all part of living. And I'm just as alive now as I ever was. And I will be alive right up to the last moment. That's the hard part, the last fraction of a second-when you know that the next fraction of a second-I can't seem to fit that moment into my life...You're absolutely alone facing an absolute unknown and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it...except give in."
Beverly: "That's how I felt the first time I lost my virginity."
Nicole Greevy channels Cleopatra and Marilyn Monroe as she slinks and slithers through a boastful trophy-jewelry bimbo akimbo performance that takes us around her world in 80 lays. She wants her former husband and his current lover to know that Beverly May have lost Brian, but she is doing just fine, thank you very much.
Family number three includes Agnes (Anita Daswani), the world-weary daughter/caretaker of her elderly mother, Felicity (Jenne Vath). Felicity obsesses about knowing when her other daughter, Claire, will return home. Agnes reads letters from Claire, and we begin to question their validity and purpose. In the meantime, Agnes makes her point of view quite clear:
Agnes (to the interviewer): "One of us is dying and it isn't you, is it?"
Interviewer: "No. You are the patient."
Felicity: "Patient?! Patient, hell! I'm the corpse. I have one lung, one plastic bag for a stomach, and two springs and a battery where my heart used to be. You cut me up and took everything that wasn't nailed down. Sons of bitches."
Bouts of caustic banter give way to tense and tender defenses of displacement and longing as each wounded character uses whatever coping mechanism works, some healthy, some detrimental, all cathartic. Although the interviewer attempts to get them to express themselves with words, often words fail them. It is there, boxed in, that they choose silence and surrender. They are tired, we are enlightened, and as Brian reminds us through laughter:
"It's all right. You mustn't take all of this too seriously. I don't...Our dreams are beautiful, our fate is sad. But day by day, it's generally pretty funny." As is this production, with a title that refers both to a gathering space and the sparring that occurs within it.
The Shadow Box runs through February 9. Tickets are available here.
Photo credit: Samantha Mercado Tudda