Michael Cristofer’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning triptych about illness, aging, family and loss comes to the Old Fitz stage
There isn’t a whiff of pretension to Kim Hardwick’s take on Michael Cristofer’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shadow Box – an occasionally overwrought but generally clear-eyed expose of the reality of death and dying (from the man who wrote the screenplays for The Witches of Eastwick and The Bonfire of the Vanities).
On a mostly bare stage, lined with conifer trees that sway gently from the ceiling and fill the theatre with the smell of essential, earthy green, we meet Joe (Mark Lee), Brian (Tim McGarry), and Felicity (Fiona Press). They’re all terminally ill, and they’re receiving some sort of new experiment in palliative care: housed in cabins in the California mountains, they are remotely observed and interviewed (by an all-seeing but never seen Jackson Blair-West), and given relative comfort for their final days. Their families – or friends (read: gay lovers) are invited to join them.
Woven through the quasi-poetic script is an exploration of impending death: how it impacts the individual, but also how it reaches out to infiltrate family units. Joe’s wife Maggie (Jeanette Cronin) hasn’t yet told their son (Simon Thomson) that his father won’t be coming home from treatment this time. Mark (Anthony Gooley), Brian’s partner, isn’t quite sure how to deal with the arrival of Brian’s former wife Beverly (Kate Raison) when she comes to say goodbye in her own eccentric way.
And then, almost always hidden in a darker corner of the stage, there are Felicity and her severe-looking daughter Agnes (a remarkable Ella Prince). It’s clear that Felicity is sicker than the other patients; she is in a great deal of pain and not quite coherent. She seems to be holding out for a visit from her preferred daughter Claire, and Agnes’ frustration, loyalty and love as she tends to her mother is heartbreaking. Later, their story takes a turn that these days is easy to guess and not shocking, but in Hardwick’s production is still deeply sad.
Cristofer’s play feels a bit dated, beyond the obvious fact of it being set in the 1970s. The language is racial and sexual in a way that most people would consider tasteless or passé (where it might originally have seemed edgy), and the characters aren’t much more than stereotypes, like the highly-strung mother or arch young gay man. But Cristofer’s attempt to uncover the unifying human experience of death keeps his play reasonably relevant (and great if you’re in the mood for a good cathartic cry).
These characters are not particularly enlightened or more beautiful in the face of suffering and imminent death; this isn’t Beth in Little Women or Katy in What Katy Did – the happy, not-quite-real invalid who accepts their fate has no place here. Hardwick consistently steers the play away from sentiment, with a couple of exceptions, including a final coup de theatre that skews mawkish.
Hardwick has clearly nurtured this troupe of generous and unself-conscious actors (and it’s a refreshing turn to see the Old Fitz stage a play that features mostly older actors). While the regionally specific American accents slip in and out of accuracy in some mouths and moments, it’s hard to mind because there’s something greater at play in these performances: an unaffected, unglamorous storytelling that feels lived in, relatable, and recognisably human. It’s worth a look.