In describing The Shadow Box, one might say it is a play about death, as anyone might suspect of a play focusing on three terminally ill patients. Michael Cristofer, however, never reveals the illness from which his characters suffer because the play is not about their disease; it is about people and human emotions. Although there is a lot of conversation about dying and what it feels like to face impending death, most of the dialogue is about the joy of living.
The play’s title indicates the meaning of the play. A shadow box is a picture frame in front of a recessed box on which shadows of objects can be displayed for viewing. The patients in The Shadow Box are not only on display for the doctors, who are studying them, but also for the audience. Even though the play is set in an experimental program, it does not focus on the program or the doctors involved. Cristofer’s device of making the doctor a faceless voice reinforces the focus on the families and their responses to the dying process.
The final moments of the play affirm more than any other part its basic message, however, that every moment should be treasured. As Brian says near the end: “They tell you you’re dying, and you say all right. But if I am dying . . . I must still be alive.” The play is sad but never depressing. The characters continually reaffirm the gift of life, and in the antiphonal chanting at the end, they remind the audience that “This living. This life. This lifetime. This air. This earth. This smile. This pain. It doesn’t last forever. It was never supposed to last forever. This breath. Yes. Yes. Yes. This moment,” is all anyone can truly count on.