Michael Cristofer’s award-winning play The Shadow Box is a reflection on death and dying. Three terminally ill patients find themselves in a California hospice, with only weeks to live, if they’re lucky: Joe, a happy-go-lucky working class guy from New Jersey; Brian, a flamboyant academic; and Felicity, a former cattle rancher drifting in and out of dementia. Their paths never cross, and the only thing have in common is their situation.
Cristofer’s play charts the emotional journey undertaken by all when someone is close to dying. Throughout the two hours, his characters embody the five stages of grief and death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
Mark Lee as Joe and Jeanette Cronin as his wife Maggie are the perfect contrast — his quiet acceptance and her vehement denial to the point where she won’t even enter the building make for interesting viewing. This ‘stick your head in the sand’ approach is undoubtedly recognisable on some level to everyone in the audience, and Cronin performs it with painful fragility.
On the other side is Ella Prince, making her Australian stage debut as Agnes, a patient carer to her taciturn mother Felicity (Fiona Press). Prince’s quietly seething performance is understated, making her sudden vitriolic outbursts all the more powerful. On a personal level, this relationship is perhaps the most painful to observe, as Agnes delivers a monologue about wanting her mother’s pain and suffering to stop.
Having been through something similar very recently, credit must be given to the playwright for his accurate observation of the impossible struggle between loving someone so much you don’t want to let them go, but at the same time wishing they were dead so they could be free of the pain.
In the middle of all this is philosophical, whimsical Brian, played by Tim McGarry, and his much younger partner Mark (Anthony Gooley). In swans Brian’s ex wife Beverley (Kate Raison), who’s the total antithesis of Mark, wearing sparkling evidence from conquests past and carrying vodka and champagne in an oversized tote. Raison is absolutely captivating, and together all three of them provide the most memorable performances of the evening. McGarry is warm and makes us smile in his portrayal of Brian’s endless optimism in the face of impending doom. Gooley’s tightly wound Mark and his desire to wrap Brian up in bubble wrap is so understandable that we take pity on him. Gooley’s emotional work, as ever, is outstanding. Raison is simply magnetic, and this part fits her like a glove.
Visually the production is simple, and makes good use of the small Old Fitz space. Isabel Hudson’s set is minimal, and the delicious, evocative smell from the five hanging trees at the back hits the nose as soon as you enter. Hudson’s costumes are well sourced and true to the 70’s style without being overt.
Although the play is a little dated, and despite some of its truisms being slightly superfluous, it does deliver some poignant moments about life, death, grieving and love. Brian’s monologue about perspective and crying over spilled champagne on a jacket is particularly resonant. You’d be hard pressed to find someone these days who isn’t affected in some way by cancer. But if you’re one of the lucky ones, this play might be worth seeing just to gain an insight into the lives of those that are.
Playing at the Old Fitz Theatre until December 10th.
Alana Kaye – Theatre Now
Photos by Robert Catto
15 Nov – 10 Dec 2016
Tue – Sat 7:30pm