Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, directed by Gordon Davidson, premiered October 30, 1975, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Currently out of print, the play is still a hearty read for a contemporary audience. The work interweaves the lives of three dramatically different terminally ill patients and their loved ones to give a dynamic, well-rounded perspective of death and dying. The richness of the play is exemplified by its unity. The action takes place during the course of one day, on a hospital campus. The source for Cristofer’s inspiration was his personal experience with two close friends dying of cancer. Offering varying perspectives of characters, comprising three different plots, gives the work a certain objectivity in its discussion of a sensitive subject.
Thematically, the work touches on the dehumanizing quality death imposes on Cristofer’s patients. Other considerations are also explored— characters choose to be remorseful, engage in reminiscence, confront their disease or exist in a state of denial, or lash out in anger. The brilliance of the work and its success at dealing with such tender subject matter is precisely that it draws no moral conclusions, only offers various perspectives for the audience to ponder without compromising the serious nature of terminal illness. Celebrated by critics for its insight, perceptiveness, and humor in dealing with controversial subject matter, it is not surprising that the work earned Cristofer both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1977.
The Shadow Box opens with Joe’s interview. Joe is a terminally ill patient vacationing on the grounds of a large hospital, a guest in one of three cabins, two of which are otherwise occupied by other patients and their families. He admits that he hasn’t seen his family in six months due to excessive hospital bills and the belief that one day he will return home.
Joe shares that he has explained ‘‘the whole setup’’ to his wife, Maggie, and has asked her to relay the information to their young teenage son Steve. He is concerned about his wife’s ability to cope with his illness, but for Maggie ‘‘it just takes her a little time.’’ Joe explains to the interviewer his own emotional struggles with his condition, admitting his anger and fear.
Joe leaves the interview to meet up with his family back at the cottage. When Maggie arrives, she reacts defiantly, stating ‘‘I’m not coming in. You’re coming out.’’ In an effort to overcome the awkwardness of their separation and to avoid any discussion of Joe’s condition, Maggie engages in small talk but eventually breaks down in Joe’s arms. She is unable to accept his condition and insists on silencing Joe when he tries to explain his illness.
Brian is now in the interview area, explaining his own feelings as a patient to the interviewer: ‘‘people don’t want to let go.’’ He expresses his amazement at the denial of others, exclaiming ‘‘the trouble is most of us spend our entire lives trying to forget we’re going to die . . . it’s like pulling the cart without the horse.’’ Further on in his reflection, Brian volunteers that his wife left him, demonstrating that he has come to terms with her departure.
Brian’s interview is finished, and the action shifts toward the activity in Cottage Two, where Beverly, Brian’s ex-wife, and Mark, Brian’s gay lover, are meeting for the first time. Beverly is quick to assess a rather awkward scene, ‘‘Well, I think we’ve got that all straight now. He’s dying. I’m drunk. And you’re pissed off.’’ Mark reports to Beverly that Brian is indeed dying, that his condition is terminal. He then goes into the details of Brian’s health as if he were reciting a laundry list, inspiring Beverly’s sarcasm, ‘‘All the details. You’re very graphic.’’ Mark assumes a protective posture with Beverly, causing her to antagonize him even further. The two do not approve of each other, and Mark, in frustration and disgust, is compelled to exit the cabin, leaving Beverly to wait for Brian.
The scene again shifts to Cottage One. Maggie is unwilling to enter the cabin, stating ‘‘I’ll go in when I’m good and ready.’’ As Maggie’s irritation increases, Joe begins a lighthearted conversation about buying a farm to try to keep things happy and upbeat. The banter ends in a scuffle when Joe and Steve attempt to pull Maggie toward the cabin. Maggie answers with a hard slap to Steve’s face. Steve retreats inside and Joe relents, confused. He discovers that Maggie has not told Steve that he [Joe] is going to die, and angrily turns to Maggie for clarification. Maggie responds ‘‘it isn’t true’’ and runs off, leaving a stunned Joe to sit with his head in his hands.
‘‘Piss poor . . . your attitude. It’s a piss poor way to treat people,’’ says Felicity...
(The entire section is 1385 words.)