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STAGE REVIEW : Performers Illuminate Insightful 'Shadow Box'

September 02, 1993|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Though Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer and Tony award-winning "The Shadow Box" was written in the pre-AIDS '70s, its insights into death and dying seem as current as headlines of the '90s. The three patients at the core of the play have cancer, but the emotional reverberations of their condition and the effect on their loved ones are universal.

This well-wrought production by the Orange Coast College Theatre Repertory doesn't miss any of the playwright's metaphysics about the limited world of his terminally ill trio or their approaches to their ends. Shunted off to hospice-like cottages where they are joined by family members, they remain under the watchful eyes of the hospital staff, like guinea pigs who might provide information on the process of dying.

Director Michael Wilkesen choreographs the intertwining action between the three cottages with sure, visual clarity. But one directorial misstep tends to weaken his concept and the power of Cristofer's structure.

As written, the hospital Interviewer is a disembodied voice that creates an intriguing sense of Big Brother watching even this most intimate and personal of life's transitions. Wilkesen has chosen to have the Interviewer (Grace Rowe) appear on stage, carrying a chair to sit on. It removes the subtlety and mystery and, importantly, the theatricality. It looks like television naturalism.

The youth of the cast is no problem, except perhaps in the case of Anita Driessen's Felicity. The character is a worn-out, blind old woman whose only hope is in the belief that her youngest daughter, who has been dead for many years, is on the way to see her. Driessen captures the woman's mood (though a more brittle crankiness would help) but makes no attempt to look the right age. Also, she didn't research the correct melody for her shouted rendition of "Roll Me Over," the venerable soldier's marching song that causes her older daughter's discomfort.

*

As that older daughter, who writes imaginary letters from her sister, Heather de Michelle is excellent--long-suffering, self-effacing and ultimately loving. Van Messerschmitt seems a bit restrained as Joe, a middle-aged working man who considers his imminent death to be one more in a lifetime of failures. Messerschmitt's calm does perfectly balance the kinetic despair of his wife, played by Debi Ham in one of the production's best performances, detailed and nicely shaded. Mike Toledano is effective as their bubbling teen-age son, who has not yet learned of his father's fate.

As the third patient, Brian, Jon Dolton provides a well-rounded portrait of a man still confused at the end of an incomplete life. Kristina Leach is strong and volatile as his promiscuous ex-wife, at the same time desperately connected to and separate from Brian's fate. As Brian's male lover Mark, Todd Kulczyk gives interesting and sharp angularity to a difficult role, capturing the anxieties of a street hustler not entirely comfortable as the caretaker he has made of himself.

In spite of the Interviewer's unwarranted visibility, there is an ensemble feel to this production that works quite well and illuminates the many shadows in Cristofer's box.

* "The Shadow Box," Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5-$6. (714) 432-5880. Running time: 2 hours.

Grace Rowe: The Interviewer

Van Messerschmitt: Joe

Mike Toledano: Steve

Debi Ham: Maggie

Jon Dolton: Brian

Todd Kulczyk: Mark

Kristina Leach: Beverly

Anita Driessen: Felicity

Heather de Michelle: Agnes

An Orange Coast College Theatre Repertory Company production of the drama by Michael Cristofer, directed by Michael Wilkesen. Lighting design: D.P Vining.

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