The mid-1970’s may be remembered as the time that death became fashionable, or at least respectable, in America. This remark is not intended to be facetious. The highly publicized studies and writings of such experts as Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the general media treatment of the subject, film and television documentaries, the new emphasis on “death counseling,” both for the terminally ill and for their survivors, even the inclusion of “death education” courses in high school and college curriculums (including visits to a crematory and the touching of a cadaver), all signal a new and more open acknowledgment of the always present, but traditionally avoided, fact of mortality as a conscious, central concern in one’s life.
One aspect of this new, more honest approach to dying has been the growth of the “hospice” concept, the creation of centers for the terminally ill where they can live out their final days, weeks, or even months in contact with family and friends and unencumbered by the false hopes and hypocritical deceptions that usually pervade such situations.
But, this new enlightenment notwithstanding, the hospice setting does not seem a promising one for a Broadway hit, nor terminal illness a very likely subject. The built-in bleakness of the topic and its potential for cloying sentimentality would seem to disqualify it as typical entertainment fare—perhaps in a small, offbeat, experimental or regional theater, but certainly not on Broadway. Michael Cristofer has, however, overcome both objections in The Shadow Box to offer an intense, thought-provoking, moving, even humorous play.
The drama centers on three patients: Joe, an earthy, vigorous middle-aged working man; Brian, a sophisticated intellectual and would-be writer; and Felicity, an old woman confined to a wheelchair, alternately fiesty and senile. Cristofer carefully juxtaposes the stories of these three characters against one another, cross-cutting between them, to set up a dramatic and thematic counterpoint that is most effective. Each character must face—or not face—the fact of death in his or her own way; their loved ones also must encounter mortality and determine its meaning for them as, willing or otherwise, they take on the role of the survivors. The contrasts between the characters and their personal dilemmas are most vivid, but the underlying similarity of their situations forces their separate stories into a single potent theatrical experience.
Despite their relative youth, each of the two male characters has, at the beginning of the play, apparently come to terms with his own pending death, Joe by a retreat into a hard-won stoicism (“Ya get used to the idea”), Brian by a torrent of words and a posture of intellectual detachment. But these tenuous defenses are destroyed by the arrival of “family”—Joe’s wife and son, and Brian’s ex-wife. In old Felicity the problem is somewhat different; it is not the fact of death that plagues her, but the shifting reality of her life that must be dealt with.
When Joe’s wife Maggie arrives, she immediately begins a pointless argument over a ham she has hauled 3,000 miles on the plane, and she refuses even to enter their cottage. To do so would be to accept the fact of Joe’s dying, and she adamantly refuses to do that. Moreover, she reveals that she has not told their teenage son Steve the truth about the trip. Maggie’s refusal to accept Joe’s situation provokes resentment and bitterness in her husband. Not only is his stoicism vitiated, but his sense of meaning is disrupted. He begins not only to resent his pending death, but even to question the value of his life.
Brian is a far more complex individual, so his problems are more intricate and subtle. His defense is in “thinking,” in achieving a nonemotional, philosophical detachment, while at the same time doing everything he wants to, however meaningless it may be. As he tells his ex-wife Beverly,BRIAN: . . . You see, the only way to beat the thing is to leave absolutely nothing behind. I don’t want to leave anything unsaid,...