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.