“Our dreams are beautiful, but our fate is sad.” – Brian, Cottage 2
The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer is, on the surface, a play about death, or about the inevitability of death. The play revolves around the lives of three terminally ill patients who have moved into cottages on the grounds of a large hospital and the families they’ve brought with them. There are no specifics to their conditions, but it is clear that the cottages serve as a sort of hospice care for these patients and their loved ones.
Joe (Joe Bussey), a blue collar sort, has moved into cottage 1 with his wife, Maggie (Claire Wehry), and son, Steve (Howie Korsmo). Cottage 2 is populated by Brian (Patrick Frost Pearson) and his lover Mark (Nick McConnell); their routine is greatly disrupted by the appearance of Brian’s unpredictable ex-wife Beverly (Julia Amundson). Felicity (Trish McGuire) lives in cottage 3 with her dutiful daughter Agnes (Alivia Holkesvig) whose devotion to her mother is deeper than anyone realizes. As the patients themselves prepare to face death, and their families prepare to face life the day after, time continues to march forward, monitored by the watchful gaze of the Interviewer (Lucas Rieder) whose job it is, it seems, to examine these final moments in the lives of his patients and their families and to try to make meaning out of the experience, for his work and perhaps also for them.
As the story unfolds, it seems to me that this play is not so much an exploration of the last days of life, but rather focuses on the families of those about to die: how do help your loved one through their final illness while also preparing yourself for the immense changes that will happen in your life once they are gone? What is the balance between self-care and care for others, and how do we find it? What are you willing to do and to experience to ensure that your loved one’s final days are as comfortable as possible?
For Maggie, she responds to her husband’s illness with denial. When she and Steve arrive on the cottage grounds, she spends all of her time outside, looking at the foliage and the serene landscape. As she and Joe talk, Maggie admits that she hasn’t told Steve about his father’s condition; as Joe pushes her to come inside with him to tell their son the truth, Maggie refuses. She hasn’t told Steve, it turns out, because she refuses to believe it herself. He looks well, better than on her last visit, and she has decided that there is no way he could be dying. As Joe tries to lead her inside, the audience can see her fantasy warring with what her rational mind knows: this is inevitable, and it is true. Her husband is dying. Even as she is there to help Joe, she needs him to help her as well: to confirm beyond any doubt or suspicion that he is, in fact, at the end of his life.
In contrast, Agnes needs nothing from her mother and is there to sacrifice herself and anything she might pursue in order to care for her mother. Felicity’s battle has been long and hard: she describes herself as having been cut apart and stitched back together more times and ways than she can remember and she has survived long past when anyone thought she would. She clings to life even as she berates the Interviewer and Agnes, constantly asking about her other daughter Claire. She is quick to remind anyone who will listen that Claire is her exceptional daughter (clearly, her favorite) and poor plain Agnes is no match for the sophisticated Claire. Felicity has been receiving letters for the past few years from her daughter Claire who ran away with an inappropriate man many years before; the letters tell of their adventurous travels and their plans to return and visit home as soon as they are able to traverse the wilds before them. But this is the fiction that defines life in cottage 3, and it is Agnes’ greatest sacrifice for her mother: Claire died not long after leaving home, and it was when she heard of the accident that she started to decline. After some time, the accident seemed to be forgotten and she started to ask about Claire; Agnes began writing the letters to give her mother something to hope for, to believe in. Now, after a comment from the Interviewer, she fears that this hope may be what is keeping her mother tethered to this painful, empty life.
The “liveliest” bunch on the hospital grounds occupy cabin 2. Brian, though not explicitly called out as a writer in his professional life, has become one in his convalescence: he has begun writing down every thought and piece of verse that enters his mind filling notebooks and journals with fiction, poetry, and all manner of writings. He wants to leave absolutely nothing unsaid in his passing. With him is his lover Mark, a former street hustler who became charmed by Brian when he started paying for his time – to talk. Now Mark is the order in the house, the one who rations out the pills and cleans up the messes. The mess he can’t clean up, however, is Beverly. She storms back into Brian’s life in a twister of slinky dresses, drunkenness, and tacky jewelry all won from her various sexual conquests. She’s rude and inappropriate, and a ton of fun. She’s also unreliable and can’t stay until the very end; as she leaves, she comforts Mark. She’s a reminder that the fun can’t possibly last, but you can enjoy it while it’s here, a lesson the rather uptight Mark needed to help him deal with Brian’s passing.
The rituals surrounding death are for the living. For those who die, they are either in whatever version of the afterlife happens to be true and are therefore free from the suffering they experienced in their final days, or if there is no afterlife then they are simply gone and don’t feel any pain or regret or sorrow. There are still some old fire ‘n brimstone talkers out there who want to imagine eternal torments that might await after this life is over (which are usually conveniently reserved for those that the aforementioned talkers don’t agree with or approve of) but for most of us, whatever version of the hereafter is in our minds, from golden streets with heavenly choruses to a reunion with the central power and origin of all things to blissful quiet oblivion (especially popular among those with small children, I would imagine), it is generally a destination of absolute peace. The rest of it, the memorials and the monuments, the gatherings, the family conflicts, the service lunches and endless hot dishes from friends and neighbors, are for the living. Mourning isn’t necessarily about the person we’ve lost; yes, they may have left us too early, and there may have been unrealized potential in them, but they are in that place of peace. We are the ones who now have a place in our lives that will never again be filled. A voice we will never again hear. Conversations we’ll never have, secrets we’ll never tell. Mourning is about learning to move around that sharp, jagged place without cutting ourselves to shreds. Learning to honor our memories and our time with the person we loved without getting lost ourselves.
The show was a beautiful and painful reminder of the time I spent with my grandmother during her last illness. Seeing our family gather together, everyone wanting to know what to do, what to say, how to proceed. When death is imminent, I think everyone becomes much more who they are. Pretenses fall away. We become our true selves. We forget some of the social costuming we put on to avoid tension with one another. Organizers want to take control and manage, caregivers want to nurture and assist with the painful transitions. We all come closer to our natures. And then we wait. And comfort. And wait. And when the waiting is over, we take part in all of the rituals and plans that need to happen to keep us moving from one day into the next. And sometimes, in the darker moments, we think ahead to our own time, and wonder who will be there with us to wait and comfort until our time arrives.
That’s what The Shadow Box was for me: a reminder about the way that death changes the world around you, and what it means to be the one who isn’t dying…at least not yet. I was watching a comedy on Netflix, Grumpy Old Women Live, where Dillie Keane talks about the death of her father at 93. When someone told her he had a “good run,” she responded with a brusque “Fuck off!” She then says to the audience “I wanted my father to die on the exact same day as me, in about a hundred years’ time.” This is what we all want and can never have: for all of those we love to always be with us. It’s heartbreaking and unavoidable. All we can do is hunker down, wait for the worst of it, and then see what the path looks like and how the landscape has changed once we’re stable enough to continue our own journey forward.
Director Gay Burgess did a wonderful job directing the cast who all performed very well in this difficult, emotional play; my one minor complaint was that the role of the Interviewer was much more effective in act 1, where he only existed as a disembodied voice asking questions. It left a bit of mystery as to whether or not he was an actual employee of the hospital or a sort of internal monologue for the terminal patients. When he arrives in act 2 in a white coat with clipboard in hand, that sense of mystery is lost. Whether this was a choice for this production or a convention of the script, I don’t know. I found Amundson particularly fetching as the unpredictable but loving Beverly and Holkesvig brought a quiet dignity to the abused Agnes that I found touching. The set in the basement lab theatre was small and well used. There was a sort of jumbled asymmetry in the steps and levels designed by Brad Reissig, and the floor was painted with a sort of clock and sundial motif to remind the audience of the constant passage of time, hour by hour and minute by minute. This blended well with the smart and realistic costumes by Michelle Spencer Davidson and Gaye Burgess, and the realistic foliage details and the sunset/twilight lighted backdrop combined to keep the stage from feeling too gimmicky and created a rather well-balanced magical realist (with the emphasis on realist) setting for the action to take place.
It was interesting to see this show playing so close to Fire Hall’s Dearly Departed, as the two shows almost seem a funhouse mirror of each other: Dearly Departed is a brazen comedy with moments of poignancy to deepen the effect, while The Shadow Box is a very serious show with moments of humor to allow the audience to breathe and decompress. Both consider what it means to lose someone we love, how to honor them and what they meant to us (the good and the bad), and that difficult step into the future, without them.
Tags: Alivia Holkesvig, Brad Reissig, Burtness Theater, Burtness Theatre, Claire Wehry, Dearly Departed, death, death and dying, end of life, Gay Burgess, grieving, hospice, hospice care, hospital, Howie Korsmo, Janess, Janessa, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Joe Bussey, Julia Amundson, Lucas Rieder, Michael Cristofer, Michelle Spencer Davidson, Miss Jaye, mourning, Nick McConnell, Patirck Pearson, Patrick Frost Pearson, terminal illness, The Shadow Box, Trish McGuire, UND Theater, UND Theatre