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Death Trap 

A fine ensemble of actors can't save The Shadow Box; a deadly dull Galaxy

Wednesday, Jun 28 1995
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since The Shadow Box first opened to enormous acclaim in 1977. Praised as an eloquent attempt to come to terms with death and dying, Michael Cristofer's play won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. But, with AIDS killing people off at a steady rate for at least 15 years, and with breast cancer at epidemic levels, the play -- well-written as it is -- now seems impossibly dated and, worse, cloyingly sentimental. Still, this revival by the Genesius Theatre Company is loaded with merit in its own right, as director Bill English and a fine ensemble of actors avoid the pitfalls of the script and keep the proceedings emotionally honest.

Cristofer was clearly inspired by the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, whose five stages of dying -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- are provided in the program. That this play was written pre-AIDS makes it a historical curiosity, a sort of New Age period piece, complete with human-potential-movement jargon. It comes off as archaic today as, say, a sci-fi movie featuring gigantic computers with blinking lights and constantly whirling reels of tape.

The premise is simple: Three terminal patients -- Joe (Allan Droyan), Brian (Louis Parnell), and Felicity (Lee Brady) -- have apparently agreed to be part of a study on dying. They have been removed to a pleasantly rustic group of cottages (set by Michele Tedeschi) on the grounds of a Mendocino hospital where their families and/or loved ones can be with them until the end. An interviewer (Edith Bryson) checks in with them and their visitors in turn, presumably to learn what goes on during the process of checking out.

At curtain's rise, we hear that Joe's wife, Maggie (Sara Heckelman), and son, Steve (Stephen Montagne), are due to join him after a six-month separation during which, we finally glean, he's been undergoing unsuccessful treatment for a nonspecified illness which we assume to be cancer. His spirits are good, he feels great, except for occasional episodes of pain.

Brian is there with his lover, Mark (John Hogan). Now that time's at a premium, Brian is a whirlwind of manic energy, doing everything he never had time for, such as writing and painting. He's cheerful and talkative except for the -- you got it -- occasional episode of pain (plus some messy extras like incontinence).

Felicity's daughter Agnes (Kimberly Richards) has to cope with her mother's dementia, and has been encouraging her fantasies of a visit from Felicity's other daughter, the beautiful (and long-gone) Claire.

Into this artificially tranquil setting comes Brian's ex-wife, Beverly (Linda Ayres-Frederick), who divorced him because he refused to learn to dance. She is drunk and dressed up in her favorite ball gown to which she's affixed various "medals" commemorating sexual conquests.

There are confrontations, truths expressed, and confidences shared along the predictably mapped lines of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But the really odd thing is that the characters supposedly in "denial," who want to return to their real lives and live them as long as is possible -- such as Maggie -- sound the sanest, while those who have come to "accept" their situation -- such as Joe -- sound contrived.

The Shadow Box is really an actor's play. It's a series of wonderfully written monologues, strung together around the three impending deaths. Everyone gets a Big Moment and a Big Speech. Which is not to say that this production is merely a lot of fireworks and scenery-chewing razzle-dazzle. The Genesius actors are too good an ensemble for that.

Particularly outstanding is Sara Heckelman as Maggie, who just wants Joe to come home to real-life New Jersey. Heckelman is awake, aware, and alive, and as an actress has no apparent need of Big Moments. Indeed, her moments are small gems all the way through, such as when she pulls out a ham she's brought because Joe likes it. She's funny and heartbreaking without resorting to sentimentality.

Also notable is Kimberly Richards as Agnes. (All of Cristofer's names seem like shorthand for stereotypes, i.e., the plain, unmarried Agnes.) She is honest to a fault, and her integrity provides a vulnerability that is palpable.

Allan Droyan makes a fine "ordinary Joe," and Stephen Montagne is touching as Joe's loving son. Louis Parnell keeps the manic do-it-all-before-you-die Brian to a believable level, and John Hogan allows Mark, a former hustler, to emerge slowly, making his portrait one of the more carefully wrought. Linda Ayres-Frederick almost tips Brian's ex-wife, Beverly, into drunken cliche-land, but manages to rescue her in time. As the cranky and demented Felicity, Lee Brady has some of the best lines, which she delivers with gusto. Edith Bryson does a serviceable job with the thankless role of the interviewer.

There's a preciousness to Shadow Box that treats the dying like an exotic, endangered species. If we've learned anything since 1977, it's that there's nothing exotic about terminal illness. Nor are its victims in any way an endangered species. Dying has lost its romantic focus. There's too much of it, and in cities like San Francisco, we are in danger of becoming numb, a problem that will hardly be reversed by sentimentalizing it.

The production has been dedicated to the memory of volunteer usher extraordinaire Genevieve Hustead, and to be frank, I'm not sure how she would have felt about being honored by this particular play. I have no doubt she would cherish the tribute by the company, but Genevieve, who died last month of cancer, was not someone who retreated from life. I can't imagine her packing herself off to a swanky hospital-resort to die in a cabin. No, she believed as Maggie does that life is to be lived on its own terms right until the end. Something she did with grace and unflagging enthusiasm.

What do you get when you stage a play with no conflict (sorry, whining doesn't count), no character development, no tension (audience squirming doesn't count either), no imagination, and a lot of women walking around in revealing togas? If you said Galaxy Date 2022, you're a winner. Playwrights Jessica Yarborough (she wants us to know she has a Ph.D. in human development), Leilani Whitney, and Marianne Schwab (a television producer whose most recent gig was "writing and producing for Kathleen Sullivan's gavel-to-gavel coverage of the O.J. Simpson trail on E! Entertainment Television") have perpetrated a dead-on-arrival women's-issues play which uses Aristophanes' Lysistrata to announce that in the future, nothing will have changed. Women will still be underpaid, abused, and slaves to men. This may be the case, but that's no excuse for 20th-century psychobabble, lifeless performances, and stultifying cliches.

To my amazement I found myself feeling sorry for the men who clump shamefacedly around the stage from time to time. Especially poor Matt Jacob, a flutist who plays Pan. His hirsute bare belly bulging over low-cut furry leggings was a source of mirth for more than one of us in the mostly empty Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. It was welcome comic relief. Thanks, Matt. Next time, though, read your contract.

The Shadow Box runs through July 30 at the Phoenix Theatre in S.F.; call 626-9269. Galaxy Date 2022 runs through July 1 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in S.F.; call 392-4400.

About The Author

Mari Coates


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