What happens to a family when their loved one has only days, weeks, or months to live? Many emotions and a range of coping mechanisms are at play, difficult to sort through and requiring intense reflection.
Montreal theatre company d2 productions in association with Mainline Theatre presents us with The Shadow Box, a 1977 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play by Michael Cristofer which studies the stages of grief one and one’s family go through when dealing with terminal illness. Directed by Dale Hayes, this production is a down-to-earth, thoughtful manifestation of how three very different families cope with their impending loss, while learning how to live in the moment.
Taking place in their three separate cottages located on the grounds of a large hospice, we are introduced one by one to three terminally ill patients: Joe (Genti Bejko), Brian (Sofian Lahyanssa), and Felicity (Helena Levitt). They are each interviewed by a psychologist (Teneisha Collins) and reveal their thoughts and feelings about their situation. Their loved ones have come to stay with them as they live out the end of their lives. Some of the loved ones have taken on the roles of caretakers, with others are simply there to visit. It becomes evident that each patient comes from a very different background, and is coping in a different manner.
Joe, a middle-aged husband and father, seems to have accepted his condition, but his wife Maggie (Susan Corbett) clearly has not. The embodiment of denial, Maggie attempts to behave as though everything might go back to normal so that they can continue with the life they built together, and has not even told their teenage son Steve (Anthony Schuller) that his father is going to die, despite having just traveled across the country to visit him at the hospice.
Brian, an academic, is accompanied by his younger boyfriend Mark (Max Mehran), a former hustler who was taken in by Brian and is now devoted to his care. They are visited by Brian’s exuberant, alcoholic, promiscuous ex-wife Beverly (Alexandra Valassis), with whom he rekindles an emotional connection. Naturally, tensions arise between Beverly and Mark who, despite having very different reactions to Brian’s illness, have their grief in common. Brian, however, has a newfound appreciation for the life he is living, and is focusing on the moment and what he can accomplish with it.
Wheelchair-bound due to her illness and multiple surgeries, and suffering from dementia, Felicity goes back and forth between being angry and confused. She is being cared for by her spinster daughter Agnes (Nadine Cayer), who stays by Felicity’s side despite being spoken to abusively by a mother who only wants to know when her other daughter might come to visit.
Each cast member brings a different representation of grief in a vulnerable, honest performance, each very relatable to audience members who are moved to re-examine their own personal experiences with grief. Despite the heavy subject matter, the play itself is not hard to watch, as it has plenty of light content, such as with Brian’s positive philosophies about life and Joe and Maggie’s reminiscing, along with comedic moments, primarily in Valassis’ lively portrayal of Beverly. These are well-balanced with heart-breaking scenes, including Maggie’s struggle with denial, Agnes’ revealing interview with the psychologist, and her difficult interactions with her senile mother.
This production succeeds in taking a realistic look at life before imminent death, without romanticizing the death. With many lengthy monologues, the performance has a tendency to lose the full attention of the audience, which is surely due to the length of the script, as the actors demonstrate an inspiring talent in their ability to express some complicated psychological struggles.
The characters all seem to embody at least one of the five stages of grief of the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Published in 1969 as part of the book On Death and Dying, this model was significant in the field of psychology, and as The Shadow Box was written in the nineteen seventies, it is likely that its depiction of how people deal with grief was more relevant and groundbreaking at the time of its original production. This gives the play the potential to feel somewhat dated; however, the characters’ struggles are still relatable today. The Shadow Box also brings up the role of loved ones as caretakers, and how families may help each other move forward through the stages of grieving, or hold each other back. As demonstrated by Brian, perhaps the best way to cope is to realize that impending death brings one’s present life into focus, and to appreciate each moment.
The seventies setting is embraced by the set and costume design of this production (Hayes and Mehran), with costumes and some furniture reflecting the decade’s fads. The audience enters the theatre through an archway decorated with vines and flowers, with large potted plants and some wicker furniture setting up the cottage aesthetic. The stage is divided into three sets: the front porch of Joe’s cottage, the comfortable living room of Brian’s cottage, and the red and white checkered kitchen of Felicity’s cottage. The lighting (Dan Liboiron) usually focuses on one set at a time, as the three different families never interact with each other, though scenes from different cottages sometimes overlap. When being interviewed, the patients sit isolated, downstage of the sets, and the interviewer sits in the first row of the audience, visible to some audience members, but a disembodied voice to others. Notably absent is any sound, save for some instrumental music that plays as the audience enters and exits. These choices serve to make the play feel very present and realistic.
Reflecting on both the fear of death and the beauty of life, The Shadow Box is a moving presentation of honest acting and relatable subject matter. Audiences looking for a thought-provoking experience will be satisfied with this production.
Review by Montreal Theatre Hub Contributor Veronica Schnitzer
When: April 19th to 30th, 2017
Where: MainLine Theatre (3997 Boul. St-Laurent)
Running Time: 2h45 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)
Rating: Audiences 13+
Admission: $12 (Students/Seniors/QDF) – $15 (General Admission)
Box Office: www.mainlinetheatre.ca | (514) 849 3378
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