A terminal illness is an interesting beast. It is undeniably tragic for family and friends to witness a loved one wither away. Yet, its discovery, some argue, brings new perspective to our precious remaining time.
The Shadow Box, in a new production at the Old Fitz, explores the implications of terminal illness for three dying patients and their families. This 1977 triptych by Michael Cristofer tackles loss, fear and human attachment. These are universal themes, still accessible despite the play’s age.
There’s a dying father, Joe (Mark Lee) his in-denial wife, Maggie (Jeanette Cronin) and a blissfully unaware teenage son (Simon Thomson). Next, an eccentric philosophising scholar, Brian (Tim McGarry), his seemingly-austere partner, Mark (Anthony Gooley) and his vivacious ex-wife, Beverly (Kate Raison). Finally, there is the taciturn Felicity (Fiona Press) fading away with dementia, who is cared for by her dutiful daughter, Agnes (Ella Prince).
Each family narrative plays out across a different segment of the stage in alternating scenes. device of an off-stage interviewer (Jackson Blair-West) reveals character’s personal fears and secrets. But, the interviewer’s purpose- some sort of research- remains unclear.
Joe’s marital tension, Brian’s attempt to stay vibrant and the clashing Mark and Beverly are all highly watchable; this is true drama fuelled by conflict. But the relationship between incapacitated mother Felicity and her least-preferred daughter Agnes lacks such exterior conflict and thus interest.
Moreover, all three of these narratives drag to some extent. A major detriment is director Kim Hardwick’s restraint in trimming Cristofer’s original script. This length – more than two hours with intermission – exacerbates the inevitable exhaustion of staring death in the face without a break.
However, a few wonderful performances keep the the play humming. Jeanette Cronin gives a heartbreaking turn as Joe’s wife who refuses to accept his impending death. Tim McGarry’s Brian is a delightful eccentric whose determined façade of vitality inevitably peels away. The clash between Anthony Gooley’s uptight Mark and Kate Raison’s free spirited Beverley is constantly compelling.
The Shadow Box is an absorbing and heartbreaking look at grief, and how we deal with it. Despite its flaws, it’s a moving piece, worth the visit.