If you think the theater has never been in direr straits than it is now, it is useful to remember that in 1977 "The Shadow Box" won the Pulitzer Prize.
Plays about death were a novelty back then, though a far more interesting play on the subject, Ronald Ribman's "Cold Storage," also opened that season.
Michael Cristofer's "The Shadow Box," simply perhaps because it broached a subject that was virtually taboo, seemed more important than it does now. I suspect that the original production, which I remember only dimly, also had an air of solemnity that made people imagine it was more profound than it is.
Over the last dozen years, of course, we have seen so many plays about death, so many with sharp-edged humor, that "Shadow Box" need not be done quite so ponderously.
In fact, Jack Hofsiss' production cuts the pomposity of the play incredibly and turns it into an evening of joyful affirmation. With one notable exception, the cast bring great vitality to the often sketchily written roles.
"Shadow Box" concerns three people living in little cottages at a special facility for the terminally ill, where they can be visited by family members. Together these characters come to terms with dying and death. Occasionally, in a silly theatrical device, some offstage shrink, a Freudian Big Brother, addresses them through loudspeakers.
Looking back, it does seem prescient that a gay man in this 1977 play is dying of some unknown disease. These scenes are particularly well done, partly because Jamey Sheridan plays the dying man with no self-pity and Raphael Sbarge plays his lover with great understatement, but especially because Mercedes Ruehl gives such a wild, exuberant performance as the man's ex-wife. Ruehl redeems the crudely written role with her own classiness.
The class element of the original has been eliminated by having one couple, then portrayed as Italian, played by blacks (Frankie Faison and Mary Alice). The dying Faison is beautiful in his concern less for himself than his visiting family. Mary Alice is touching as his wife, still in denial about his illness.
Estelle Parsons brings great dignity to the role of an old woman unable to conceal her favoritism for the child who deserted her. As the daughter who has been faithful to her, Marlo Thomas lacks any acting skill. When she recites her lines, you understand how threadbare the writing is.
Life and Death - both with capital letters but only lightly underscored - are the weighty imponderables pondered on by Michael Cristofer's 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Shadow Box," which last night came round again in its still powerful first Broadway revival at the Circle in the Square Theater.
And talking of Life and Death, it's a very special pleasure to welcome back Circle in the Square itself after a couple of seasons in what looked nastily like a death-watch coma.
Now under the joint artistic direction of its old stalwart, and co-founder, Theodore Mann and newcomer Josephine R. Abady, it is very much up, about and taking nourishment.
Since the triumph of "The Shadow Box" in 1977 - it pulled off that year's Tony Award as well as the Pulitzer - death and dying have acquired familiarity in our theater, the arbitrariness of death's process (the "why me, why now, why not?") becoming a commonplace.
The title, a carefully calculated pun, is layered with implication. A shadow-box was a Victorian device, setting tiny figures against tinier landscapes stuck in a compartmentalized box hung against a wall.
Then, to shadow box is to box without an opponent, to battle the unseen and unknown. Finally a shadow box is a cinematographic contraption enabling filmrushes to be screened in daylight - bringing, as it were, light to normally dark places.
These then are Cristofer's intended resonances. His play is set in some symbolic camp for the terminally sick - a hospice in the woods where families can surround their dying, while mysterious researchers (represented by the disembodied voice of "The Interviewer") observe the process.
We are shown three very diverse families. In Cottage One we have our first two, a dying blue-collar worker (Frankie R. Faison), his wife (Mary Alice) and his young son (Sean Nelson).
Cottage Two reveals a dying gay writer (Jamey Sheridan), his lover (Raphael Sbarge) and his former wife (Mercedes Ruehl). Finally in Cottage Three there are a geriatric woman (Estelle Parsons), her spinster daughter (Marlo Thomas) and, in effect, her dead favorite daughter, whose imaginary letters written, Cyrano-fashion, by Thomas, provide her only solace.
Jack Hofsiss' crisp direction uses adroitly the Circle's playing area by having the various families (and, in effect, their cottages) virtually interweave on stage, adding to the fugal, chamber music style of the play, not least in its final affirmative coda to life.
Among the play's strengths, such as unsentimentality and emotional directness, are the roles it offers, and the performances are fine across the board.
However, special attention should be paid to Ruehl's good-natured fireball of a hard-drinking hedonist, Alice's timid wife of lost chances, and Parsons and Thomas a mother/daughter duo of pained love.
Altogehter, tautly staged and passionately acted, production does proud by Cristofer's contrapuntal musings - such as "the real trouble with dying is you only get to do it once" - on families assailed by the ravages of terminal illness.
And "The Shadow Box," although over-schematic in the tidiness of its formulation, remains extraordinarily moving, especially in its hot rage, cool lack of self-pity and that final asseverance and acceptance of life itself.
"You get tired of keeping it all inside," says a terminally ill man in "The Shadow Box," the Michael Cristofer play that has been revived at the Circle in the Square Theater, "but it's like nobody wants to hear about it."
In 1977, when "The Shadow Box" opened on Broadway, American audiences generally didn't want to hear much about their own mortality, and certainly not in clinically specific terms. Mr. Cristofer's play, which portrayed three cancer patients facing death in a California hospice, seemed to represent a significant breakthrough in subject matter if not in form. While critics expressed reservations about its dramatic contrivances, nearly everyone agreed it was a moving and worthy effort, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.
Because of a recent well-publicized First Amendment debate about the aborting of a high school production of the play in Tucson, Ariz., "The Shadow Box" returns to New York with a newly illuminated crusader's halo. And given the fact that it's the first production from the financially embattled Circle in the Square since 1992, it is hard not to root for it.
It is all the sadder to report, then, that the evening falls significantly short of triumph. Though the play, directed by Jack Hofsiss with an impressive, well-seasoned cast, has its affecting moments and a stirring performance from the great Mary Alice, it seems somehow to have shrunk.
Its canvas appears smaller now, its characters more crudely drawn, its schematic elements more blatant. And while the actors, who include the powerhouses Mercedes Ruehl and Estelle Parsons, work hard to transcend these limitations, the effort shows. This is an earnest, decent production that wears its good intentions drably, and nearly every dramatic seam is visible.
This is partly because "The Shadow Box" has faded in the glare of what has succeeded it. The decimating effects of AIDS, and the political movements that were born in response to it have engendered a new, more aggressive openness in dealing with death and illness, seen in plays like "Marvin's Room," "Angels in America" and even "Three Tall Women." Performance artists and monologists have taken to stages and galleries to discuss and portray the progress of diseases in unstinting detail, baring Kaposi's sarcoma lesions and mastectomy scars.
The problem with Mr. Cristofer's play isn't its comparative tameness, though. After all, Craig Lucas's "Prelude to a Kiss" dealt with mortality quite sweetly. What dates "The Shadow Box" is its diagrammatic nature.
The production's program quotes the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on the stages a person with a terminal illness goes through, from denial, through anger, bargaining and depression, to acceptance. Mr. Cristofer has created characters who give rather literal-minded life to these phases, and the play sometimes takes on the didactic, directly illustrative nature of a self-help primer.
Set in the faceless woodland cottages (David Jenkins's frankly utilitarian set serves to represent all of them) of a compound for cancer patients, the play presents three of those patients, of radically different backgrounds, as they deal with friends, family members and an anonymous interviewer (Ron Frazier) who steers them through self-analysis.
Joe (Frankie R. Faison) is a blue-collar worker whose visiting wife (Ms. Alice) is so terrified of losing him that she won't even enter his cottage; it seems to her like a coffin. Felicity (Ms. Parsons), an old woman who drifts between senility and combative lucidness, lives with her daughter Agnes (Marlo Thomas), a mousy, browbeaten spinster who tries to keep her mother happy with fictional letters from a daughter who in fact is long dead.
There is also Brian (Jamey Sheridan), an eccentric, reflective academic, whose relationship with his young lover, Mark (Raphael Sbarge), is thrown out of kilter when his flamboyant ex-wife, Beverly (Ms. Ruehl), arrives.
The intimacy of the Circle in the Square's theater enforces the audience's sense of clinical complicity with the interviewer. "What, have you got your friends out there again?" asks Felicity. "All come to look at the dead people?" And there's a feeling that the actors are, on one level, playing directly to us, feeding off the laughs invoked by Mr. Cristofer's gentle gallows humor. "Our dreams are beautiful, our fate is sad," as Brian says of his situation. "But it's generally pretty funny."
The actors do indeed find the comic aspects of their characters' situations without trivializing them. What is often curiously missing is the sense of urgency in their tug of war between hope and despair. Mr. Sheridan, who is burdened with inspirational statements about the miracle of life, conveys Brian's philosophical contemplativeness but not the visceral fear behind it. His trembling hands seem like an affectation.
A conspicuously deglamorized Ms. Thomas charts Agnes's progress toward self-revelation with a painstaking sincerity that cannot put over lines like: "It all went wrong. What happened, Momma? There must have been a time when I loved you." The fiercely talented Ms. Ruehl, in a flashy part that seems to have been conceived by someone who read too many Noel Coward plays, tries to disguise the cliched aspects of her character with a host of cartoonish affectations that wear thin.
Ms. Parsons, while seeming a shade too robust for a woman on the brink of death, and Mr. Sbarge, who captures the judgmental puritanism of a reformed hustler, fare better. But it is Ms. Alice who soars here. With a pasted-on smile that sears, her Maggie exudes a furious, self-protecting energy that is the real emotional motor of "The Shadow Box." Though the play's antiphonal chorus of paeans to life's brevity has a guaranteed sentimental tug that evokes Emily's final scene in "Our Town," it is Ms. Alice who truly earns our tears.
Indeed, watching Ms. Alice with the sense of closeness that nearly every seat in the Circle in the Square affords, I was reminded of what a fine showcase the theater can be for good acting. "The Shadow Box" may be a shaky first step in the company's rebirth, but it is heartening to know that this important theater is no longer dark.
A play 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.