The Shadow Box is actually three one-act plays intertwined together around a common theme. Since the play is set in three cottages that are connected to a large hospital and contain a terminally ill patient in each, the assumption is that this is a hospice or experimental program for dying patients and their families. Michael Cristofer never specifies the illness, but most critics have assumed the characters all have cancer. Tying the three plots together are interviews conducted by an unseen doctor, who questions the patients and their loved ones about having to confront death and their reactions to the process of dying. The time is linear with occasional lapses, covering one twenty-four-hour period. Scenes switch rapidly from one cottage to another, and sometimes lines alternate from character to character without regard to scene. The cottage inhabitants, however, never show an awareness of one another. At the end of the play, the characters speak directly to the audience in an almost chantlike delivery of similar lines, reminding the audience that “this moment” is all anyone has for certain.
In cottage one, Joe, a former factory worker and bar owner, awaits the arrival of his wife and son from New York City. The setting is the front porch of Joe’s cottage. When they arrive, he learns that his wife, Maggie, has not told their son Steve that Joe is dying. This one-act focuses mainly on Maggie’s inability to come to terms with the reality of Joe’s situation. She keeps insisting that he will get better and come home, and he gently assures her that he will not. Her resistance to enter the cottage parallels her refusal to acknowledge that Joe’s illness is terminal. He hopes she will accept his condition so they can enjoy what time they have left together. In an outburst of anger, Maggie finally faces the truth and they enter the cottage to...
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