Aplay about three patients and their families dealing with impending death probably wouldn’t strike most struggling producers as the kind of material to inspire the rebirth of a theater. But that’s exactly what Circle in the Square has done with “The Shadow Box,” Michael Cristofer’s 1977 Pulitzer and Tony winner. Circle hasn’t produced a show in more than two years, but with an infusion of new blood — Josephine R. Abady recently signed on as co-artistic director with founder Ted Mann — and an invigorated board, things are looking more hopeful for the venerable company.
So, why a play about dying people? This production has its roots in an all-star December reading of the script in Tucson, Ariz., organized to protest the firing of a high school drama teacher whose students were performing a scene from the play that was deemed offensive. Two of the readers — Mercedes Ruehl and Estelle Parsons — approached Mann about a revival, and here it is, in a very good, unexpectedly moving production.
Unexpectedly because “The Shadow Box” could easily have played like an artifact; despite the strong language, it’s completely predictable. It’s set on the grounds of a California hospital, where some cottages have been set aside as a hospice for terminally ill patients.
One playing area serves the three dying people: Joe (Frankie R. Faison), a working-class man joined by his wife (Mary Alice) and son (Sean Nelson); Brian (Jamey Sheridan), a writer there with his lover Mark (Raphael Sbarge), and joined by his ex-wife Beverly (Ruehl); and Felicity (Parsons), an aging woman tended by her doting daughter Agnes (Marlo Thomas).
The cottages are rigged so that the patients and their families can speak with an unseen psychiatrist (Ron Frazier), who draws them out and imparts wisdom — a device that smacks of ’70s drama.
Notwithstanding all those awards, “The Shadow Box” isn’t particularly insightful on the subject of death or even of family; it’s somewhat clinical in its adherence to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of dealing with death, each one (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) given due accordance and hammered home.
Nevertheless, the play does offer actors some meaty roles, and the play is well served by the current cast and director Jack Hofsiss. Faison always has had an almost cherubic innocence, and it works well here against Alice, who plays a wife in denial with great warmth and subtlety. Ruehl vamps hilariously as the trashy but devoted ex-wife — though it is by now a type she owns — while Sheridan is oddly endearing as the intellectual open to everything in his last days, with Sbarge striking the right notes of overprotectiveness, anger and fear as his lover. Parsons crackles with irascibility in the early scenes, and Thomas is all frumpishness and frustration as the daughter.
With characters cross-cutting scenes and that omniscient interviewer, the play lends itself well to the Circle’s arena configuration, and Hofsiss has choreographed the action gracefully. David Jenkins’ setting is spare and suggestive, and Richard Nelson’s lighting doesn’t push the mood. Carrie Robbins’ costumes are fine.
That it was the target of censors doesn’t make “The Shadow Box” a great play any more than good acting does. Still, Circle in the Square has mounted an admirable revival, and welcome back.