Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Shadow Box
The Adobe Theater
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Mark's review of 1984


Jean Effron, Kathleen Welker, Bridget Kelly,
Ruben Muller, Nick Pippin, Kristin Elliott, and
Ben Wagner

Photo by George Williams
When I was in medical school (1973-1977), a new addition to the curriculum was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's 1969 book "On Death and Dying." In the 1970s, how to deal with dying patients was not formally taught in medical schools. The emphasis was on keeping patients alive as long as possible. Talking about death with them was, if not exactly taboo, something to be avoided.

Kübler-Ross was the first, to my knowledge, to delineate the stages that most dying patients (and often their family and friends) go through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I was lucky enough to hear her give a lecture at our school. She had half of the audience sobbing.

As I was watching Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box, it became apparent that this play was a riff on Kübler-Ross (the tip-off was the word "bargaining" in the script). It is basically a dramatization of three fictional case histories of dying patients. The playwright is coy about what exactly they are dying of, but we have to assume it's cancer (I like specifics, but we don't get them here). There is an old woman, in and out of dementia, and her devoted daughter. There is a man from New Jersey whose wife and son come to visit him. And there is a gay man whose young boyfriend is helping to take care of him; his ex-wife unexpectedly drops in.

These three are living out their last days in what appears to be a hospice in California. They have been allocated cottages in a wooded area, so that family or friends can stay with them. The Shadow Box is really three short plays acted out on the same stage. Some of the dialogue meshes at the end, with a Joycean iteration of the word "Yes," but the characters' stories do not intersect.

When it opened on Broadway in 1977, pre-AIDS epidemic, it was probably the first play to deal directly and exclusively with dying, and might also have been one of the first to depict a gay man and his lover. It won the Tony and the Pulitzer. I don't think it would get such acclaim nowadays. There have since then been plenty of shows on stage and screen that deal with dying people and in particular dying gay men. But although its impact has been somewhat blunted over the past 40 years, it's still an effective work of theater, and it had quite a few of the audience members crying, just like Kübler-Ross did.

This is a great play for actors, and Frederick Ponzlov has assembled a terrific cast and has directed them expertly. For some reason, he opens the show as if this were a rehearsal, having the actors walk on stage as actors, not as their characters. I guess this is to emphasize that the show is as much about acting as it is about the stories these actors tell.

It is indeed the acting that makes this production memorable. Jean Effron and Kathleen Welker are both superb as the old woman and her daughter; it may be the best performance that either one of them has ever given. Ruben Muller is good but always sounds like he's from New Mexico instead of New Jersey. Kristin Elliott is excellent as his wife who is still in the stage of denial. And Ben Wagner is really good as his teenage son. (I don't know why Cristofer has this character swear so much in front of his parents; hearing the words "fuck" and "fucking" repeatedly uttered by a fourteen year old just sounds like he is going for shock value.)

The three actors in the gay triad couldn't be better. Dean Squibb and Bridget Kelly are at the top of their form, which is very high indeed. (Some of Dean's lines sound phony, but that's Cristofer's fault.) Nick Pippin gives another excellent performance, after the little-seen Dog Sees God at the University of New Mexico. I hope he stays in town and does a lot more theater.

The set by Carla Cafolla is rather minimal but good enough, and the lighting, designed by Elisa River Stacy and operated by Kayleigh Tolley, is very well done.

As to the title, I'm still not sure what it's supposed to mean. Wikipedia defines a shadow box as "an enclosed glass-front case containing objects presented in a thematic grouping with artistic or personal significance." That could describe the play itself, or the cottages the characters find themselves in. Then, of course, there's the shadow of death hanging over it all.

Although the play sounds like a downer, the ending is life affirming (it reminded me of Our Town). See it for the always-relevant subject matter, but even more so for the exceptional acting.

The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer, directed by Frederick Ponzlov, is being presented at the Adobe Theater on north 4th Street (north of Alameda) in Albuquerque. Through April 9, 2017. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets $14 to $17. Info at www.adobetheater.org.


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