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O.C. Stage

Love and Death

Mother, daughter actors tap deep emotions playing roles in 'The Shadow Box' at Empire Theater in Santa Ana.

March 02, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Together on stage, Evelyn C. Canedy and Kysa Cohen, mother and daughter, are enacting one of the fates that parents and children fear most: a walk together through the valley of the shadow of death that brings no comradeship or connection, no acceptance or affirmation, only a wasting marathon of suffering.

They cut memorable figures in the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's current production in Santa Ana of "The Shadow Box," Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about three dying people at a hospice and their families.

Cohen's Agnes registers weariness beyond exhaustion as she waits with her mother, who dozes in a wheelchair and whimpers with need but refuses to die because of a delusional hope of seeing another, more favored daughter who is long dead. Agnes is guilty of feeding this hope--and, unwittingly, the suffering that comes with it.

Canedy's Felicity has moments when the likably crusty combatant in her profanely asserts itself, but she has been defeated by a science that makes her linger beyond her time.

The other characters find connection and acceptance.

But Agnes and Felicity remain mute and stuck, shadowed by guilt and resentment from the past and the lie that prolongs their painful present.

It is a fate that few people can bring themselves to face in real life, and Canedy and Cohen are no exceptions.

"Death is something I've never wanted to discuss," Cohen, 48, said last week as she and her mother sat side by side on a couch in the lobby of the Empire Theater, a few minutes after playing Agnes and Felicity. "It hits home," she began, then urged a brighter thought into being as she patted Canedy on the arm: "Hang on, Mom, 30 or 40 more years."

Canedy, 69, said she and her husband Don, who watched a performance through tears, discussed the play's implications a little.

"How will we treat our children if we go into lingering. . . .? We're not going to," she said after the frightening thought trailed off. "But you never know. You never know."

As the play's director, Gregory Cohen, Kysa's husband, tried to help mother and daughter dive deep into a scenario that their offstage psyches could not help but push away. At the same time, he said, he tried to keep clear the lines between role and reality. "You have to draw from your own life, but you don't have to absorb yourself" in a way that lingers after the curtain.

Cohen says he did not set out to orchestrate a mother and child reunion on stage. His wife, who teaches drama at Century High School in Santa Ana, has extensive experience as a dancer on film and television, and as a director in local community theater. But she had not acted in seven years. He encouraged her to audition as Agnes, and as she read, he was drawn to her ability to project "a sense of vulnerability, someone who's been beaten down."

He didn't have to invite Canedy, an active thespian on the local community theater circuit and at Disneyland since her retirement as a music teacher in 1992. "Any time you see a role for an old lady, I go," she said. In her most widely seen vehicle, a current recruiting commercial for the U.S. Army, she appears as "a little old lady in a wicker chair" who delivers the tag line, "You make me feel so safe."

Gregory Cohen wanted a Felicity who could play Felicity as a fighter armed only with humorous defiance. Crusty humor comes easily to Canedy, a small woman with a puckish look on her round face. The character's other dimension, the childlike helplessness of the frightened and seriously ill, is something she witnessed often as a girl.

When she was 8, her father had a stroke and could no longer farm. To make a living, the family converted their house in Rushville, Ind., into a nursing home, sharing it with as many as six patients.

One night, she doesn't know why, her father made her and her siblings keep vigil over a dying man.

"We heard the rattles. Oh, it was terrible. [My father] gathered us around the bed and we watched him die. He had no one. Maybe that was the reason."

Gregory Cohen had long wanted to direct "The Shadow Box," which premiered in 1975. He intends it partly as a testament to friends in the theater he has lost to AIDS, partly to honor his father, who died 20 years ago. He wants audiences to hear the play's affirmation that the end of life, if faced with clarity, can be a deeply meaningful time.

"I want to do it as my statement to people I've lost or might lose: 'You're important to me. You're important to a lot of people.' It's difficult to explain to people that this play about death is very positive and uplifting."

Kysa Cohen and her mother say they get along well. They bicker over small things but never yell. The Cohens and the Canedys live no more than 10 minutes apart in Orange, and they like to get together for weekly Sunday breakfasts. Sometimes, though, they get too busy, and weeks go by without them seeing each other.

"The Shadow Box" experience will change that, Kysa vows. "I decided recently I'm going to make a concerted effort" to talk regularly to all her family members--including two younger brothers and their three children who also live in Orange County. This play about death, she said, has been a reminder about the important things in life. "You should pay attention to your loved ones and treat them better, because, gosh, it could happen."

BE THERE

"The Shadow Box," by Michael Cristofer, produced by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Through March 12. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. $10 to $12. (714) 547-4688.

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