The university theatre season in Montgomery opened this week with Theatre AUM's production of Michael Cristofer's 1977 Pulitzer and Tony award winning drama, "The Shadow Box." Directed with a calmness that emphasizes its themes more than its characters, Val Winkelman has provided a thoughtful and provocative piece of theatre that engages audiences' introspection and discussion in this, Theatre AUM's 35th season.
Set in three hospice cottages at a hospital -- one instance of the "box" of the title -- three terminally ill patients at first are interviewed by an 'off-stage' counselor [Rebecca Dennard] whose calming voice, while meant to keep them at ease, does occasionally provoke agitation.
Soon, each patient is joined by family & friends who complicate the situations through an assortment of personal issues ranging from denial to anger to jealousy, fear, and hostility. Mixed at times with characters' desperate attempts at humor, grotesque and vulgar ones at that, Cristofer targets numerous recognizable methods that people use to deal with a topic most would rather not, leaving audiences to figure things out for themselves.
Through the course of its two acts, alternating episodes of each character have a cumulative effect that captures the audience's thought if not its emotions. We might feel for the characters in their respective situations, but are more likely to grapple with our own attitudes regarding death and dying.
A rather long exposition brings us into the situations of the various characters. In Cottage One, everyman Joe [Wes Milton] is visited by his wife Maggie [Sarah Worley] who has not been able yet to tell their son Steve [Billy Goff] that his father is dying. In Cottage Two, the seemingly sensible writer Brian [David Wilson] is divorced from the flambuoyant Beverly [Nicole Smith] and being cared for by his young lover Mark [Landon Ledbetter]. And Cottage Three has an aggressive senile woman named Felicity [J. Diboll] pestering her daughter Agnes [Laura Bramblette] while being wheeled about.
All of them are boxed in, both literally and figuratively; the cottages are the patients' last living quarters meant to provide a semblance of normal living, but all the characters are confined by their individual issues and inability to address the very real problem.
Ultimately, some of the dialogue resonates: a sense of uselessness while waiting for the inevitable, an attempt to "leave nothing behind, nothing undone", "dying gets a little messy now and then", "life doesn't last forever", "who are you?", letting go, and distinguishing between what is important and what is petty.
Performances are distinctly individualized, yet there is a limited range of pace and volume expressed -- other than the occasional outburst or rude joke. In all, the production's elegaic style challenges audiences to be tolerant of one another in times of stress and to give due consideration to one's own life.