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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385

Act I
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.

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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 to the interviewer. Felicity is also a patient and a resident of Cottage Three, along with her daughter Agnes. She is now in the interview area, but exhibits a decidedly more hostile attitude toward the interviewer than do the other patients. As she expresses:

I’m the corpse. I have one lung, one plastic bag for a stomach, and two springs and a battery where my heart used to be. You cut me up and took everything that wasn’t nailed down.

Felicity has confused the reality of the hospital grounds with the belief she is at home. In her lunacy, she states that her daughter Claire is ‘‘here,’’ ‘‘at the house,’’ but a few minutes later adds that ‘‘no, Claire isn’t with me anymore . . . Agnes is with me now,’’ and then calls out to Agnes in the darkness. Agnes arrives, and Felicity commands that she ‘‘take her back’’ to the cottage, but not before humiliating Agnes in the presence of the interviewer.

When Brian arrives at Cottage Two, his reunion with Beverly is a warm and friendly one. Brian updates Beverly on his life, and all of his recent accomplishments. He has liquidated his assets, put them ‘‘in a sock’’ and ‘‘buried’’ them on Staten Island, taken up painting and writing, even spent time in a Holiday Inn in Passaic, New Jersey. Brian’s explanation for this flurry of activity is that he doesn’t ‘‘want to leave anything unsaid, undone . . . not a word, not even a lonely, obscure, silly, worthless thought.’’ Apart from this moment of elation, Brian tells Beverly ‘‘I’m scared to death’’ when he thinks about dying.

Act I ends in Cottage Three, with Felicity and Agnes. In a struggle to reach her mother, Agnes yells out ‘‘Mama!!!! Stop it!!’’ as her mother sings an unfamiliar, disturbing song. As the scene progresses, the voices of the inhabitants of all three cottages form a disjointed, confused dialogue of suffering, beginning with Felicity’s childlike cries for help, and ending with Mark’s reassuring words, ‘‘It’ll all be over in a minute. It just seems to take forever.’’

Act II
During a small party in Cottage Two, a disgusted Mark again threatens to walk out on Beverly’s outrageous, drunken behavior, only to have Beverly carelessly pour a bottle of champagne on him. Brian responds to the conflict, ‘‘My God, it’s only a jacket. Why are we wasting this time?’’ After a moving speech, Brian takes Beverly in his arms, ‘‘Come on, my beauty, I’ll show you a dancer.’’ But the activity is too much for him, and he collapses, then carefully exits to the bedroom.

Agnes confesses to the interviewer that she is writing letters, posing as her dead sister Claire to humor her mother, stating, ‘‘I didn’t know what to do, I tried to tell her . . . I tried . . . but she wouldn’t listen.’’ Agnes believes that playing along with her mother ‘‘makes her [Felicity] happy.’’ The subject turns to Felicity’s suffering, and when Agnes pleads, ‘‘Why does she want to keep going like this?’’ she is shocked by the interviewer’s answer, ‘‘It’s what we call ‘making a bargain.’ She’s made up her mind that she’s not going to die until Claire arrives.’’ A troubled Agnes flees the scene but not before promising she will return to speak to the interviewer again.

Mark admits to Beverly that he was at one time a male prostitute until Brian befriended him. He speaks of Brian’s illness as if it were his, ‘‘It’s sick and putrid and soft and rotten and it is killing me.’’ Beverly calls Mark on his bout with self-pity, ‘‘from one whore to another,’’ she says, ‘‘Brian happens to need you. And if that is not enough for you, then you get yourself out of his life, fast.’’ The struggle ends with Beverly’s departure. Before she leaves, she says to Mark, ‘‘Don’t hurt him with your hope.’’

Meanwhile, Maggie and Joe have been reminiscing about their life together. The conversation is not a happy one—Joe expresses his anger because he is dying, and his life is ending without a sense of accomplishment. Maggie breaks down to Joe, stating that he should come home because their relationship isn’t ‘‘finished,’’ that ‘‘it’s too fast.’’ The scene between Maggie and Joe ends as they enter the cottage. Upon Maggie’s request, Joe says, ‘‘I’m going to die, Maggie.’’

At the play’s conclusion, Brian and Mark remain together. Agnes, in what seems like a moment of redemption, says to Felicity, ‘‘If I told you the truth now, would it matter?’’ Recognizing her mother’s decline, Agnes forgoes telling the truth and proceeds to read the fictitious letter from Claire to Felicity.

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Themes