Director David McGinnis and his cast of nine actors bring Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shadow Box to life in a solid and straightforward production that kicks off ACT 1's 2012-13 season at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater.
The Shadow Box-which opened on Broadway in 1977-maintains its dramatic intensity and its ability to engage audiences, but what was once considered innovative and new now seems somewhat predictable and perhaps even dated. The action in Cristofer's play takes place over the course of 24 hours, as we meet three patients and their families who are living out the remainder of their days in cabins on the grounds of a major hospital. Although we are never told what their maladies are, all three of the patients are facing their final days, and each one-in his or her own, deeply personal way-is struggling to come to terms with a terminal diagnosis.
Clearly, The Shadow Box remains relevant despite its age, and the characters created by Cristofer-though easily dismissed as dramatic archetypes-are relatable and accessible in their own ways. In fact, it's somehow remarkable that the play is still so affecting even after countless productions (including the Paul Newman-directed adaptation for TV) over the past 35 years. To McGinnis' great credit, he's assembled a fine cast of local actors to bring the story to life on the Darkhorse stage, and he treats the script reverently, never straying far from Cristofer's original intent.
McGinnis directs this revival of The Shadow Box almost as a choreographer would mount a well-known ballet: staging the three interconnected plotlines as a series of movements as the characters do their shadow box with God, the specter of death hanging heavily over the proceedings. Evocative and emotional, the three separate stories of Joe, Felicity and Brian are tied together neatly and succinctly in the play's unsatisfying final scene.
The stories that converge on the stage are played out in each of the three cabins and in interviews done by the patients and some of their loved ones with an unseen, disembodied psychiatrist who delves beyond the surface in an effort to gauge the affects that a terminal illness has on both the afflicted and those around them. To my way of thinking, this particular dramatic device is what dates The Shadow Box (even if the stories remain just as universal 35 years out from the first time they played). In McGinnis' production, the role of the psychiatrist is played by Joyce Jeffries, whose mellifluous and clipped British tones add gravitas to every line she speaks.
In Cabin Number 1, we meet Joe (Matthew Smith), a plain-spoken New Yorker who is eager to welcome his wife Maggie (Jennifer Bennett) and son Steve (Wes Richardson) for their first visit. Smith's performance is heartfelt and genuine, to be sure, and his scenes with Bennett reverberate with a sense of honesty that underscores their every moment onstage. Bennett, who has added a string of impressive performances to her resume in the past year, again shows off her range with this emotionally rendered portrayal of a woman who refuses to face the truth of her husband's impending demise. Richardson, who at a young age is already a veteran of local theatre, gives a strong performance as the headstrong teenager, delivering his lines with confidence and appearing very much the equal of his older and more experienced co-stars.
In Cabin 3, Felicity, a sharp-tongued, seemingly cold-hearted old woman (played with the perfect detachment of a senior citizen who's seen far too much of life and endured too much pain), is played with skilled restraint by Pat Rulon. She shares the cabin with her long-suffering and dutiful daughter Agnes (portrayed with focus and an almost heartbreaking genuineness by Memory Strong), who tries to give her dying mother a sense of hope and aspiration by pretending that her long-absent sister Claire is traveling from Mexico to be with their mother once more. As Felicity and Agnes struggle to survive and to throw off the shackles of their interdependence, Rulon and Strong give rich performances, which seem to stem from their characters' shared hardships and heartaches.
Brian, an outspoken gay man, shares Cabin 2 with his "longtime friend" Mark. Played with his trademark wit and measured self-assurance by Macon Kimbrough, Brian's acerbic personality is balanced out by the expression of his deep-seated fears, regrets and recriminations that become evident when Beverly, his ex-wife played by Christi Dortch, surprises him with an unexpected visit. Dortch exudes confidence in her performance, playing Beverly with blowsy, over-the-top bravado that masks her own deeply rooted concerns-both for herself and for Brian, as she learns more of the reality he is facing. As the odd man out in this triangle, Benjamin Papa seems miscast as Mark: his line readings seem forced and lacking in nuance, although in retrospect this could indeed be the result of a choice to more effectively segregate Mark during the high-spirited scenes in which Brian and Beverly recall their shared past and Beverly's sexual peccadilloes. The Cabin 2 scenes would be so much more effective if played with more energy and a sense of the reckless abandon with which Beverly has lived her life.