"The Shadow Box," with its gentle pathos and intelligence, is not only one of the more affecting dramas to come out of the 1970s; it's also one of the most challenging theater pieces for actors.
It presents an intelligent, sensitive treatment of death and grieving, and it requires great restraint to be most effective, a fact that seems to have eluded many of those involved with the Garden Grove Community Theatre production.
Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning play focuses on the lives of three terminally ill people during their last days at a mountain hospice. It's a provocative story that doesn't need anguished performances to move an audience. It's hard to blame the cast, however, for the bigger-than-death characters offer great temptations for an actor: Just about every scene is revelatory, full of pain and courage. Without subtlety, however, the acting is noticed more than the nuances and, invariably, the story is weakened.
It's really unfortunate that some of the actors go too far because this is, on the whole, a sensitive production handled with loving care by director Peter Dolan. It's apparent that he has been deeply affected by the work and is committed to getting across its message of hope and compassion in the face of tragedy. On the technical side, he handles the various scene shifts gracefully, never letting the intercutting stories of the three patients collide or become confusing.
If Dolan is to be faulted, it has to be for not keeping a firm rein on his performers. The lack of control starts with Edwin D. Schuyler's portrayal of Brian, the dreamer-philosopher who has chosen to spend his last days with his lover, Mark (Jerry Halbert). It's unclear whether Schuyler sees Brian as a heroic visionary in control of his fate or as a pathetic man who has deluded himself into believing he has accepted it. Maybe it's a little of both, but any way you look at Schuyler's over-sentimental performance, it's not convincing enough.
Neither is Adriane Coros as Beverly, Brian's boozy, man-hungry ex-wife. The problem here is that Coros has made the blowzy Beverly too superficial; the dignity and depth of this crucial character are missing and consequently a watershed scene between Beverly and Mark seems hollow.
In contrast to the other misses, however, the relationship between Joe, a simple family man who cannot understand why he has been chosen to die, and his wife, Maggie, who can't even admit that it's going to happen, is finely tuned. Don McNatt as Joe and Rebecca McNatt as Maggie share a natural chemistry (they're married in real life) that makes for some believable and heartfelt moments. A bones-baring confrontation near the play's end, when both try to face Joe's coming death, is a knockout.
"The Shadow Box" runs through March 21 at the Garden Grove Community Theatre in Eastgate Park, 12001 St. Mark St. Information: (714) 897-5122.