Thursday, February 20, 2020

Pulitzer Winner, THE SHADOW BOX by Michael Cristofer, a triumph at Regeneration Theatre



THE SHADOW BOX by Michael Cristofer is a Pulitzer-winning play and justifiably so, since it takes on content as difficult as any life lived. This play's focus is on people preparing for the moment when death, abstraction and certainty, will arrive.  Not with the medieval figure in a black cloak carrying a sycthe but in a mythical enclave in California's poconos in the 1970s.

In Regeneration Theatre's wonderful restaging, the scene's a mythic "summer camp" with cabins indicated by roofs of wooden triangles and walls with Birchwood branches (set Samantha Cancellarich). Random furniture fleshes out interiors, though it's dwarfed by the heavenly feel of the invisible Poconos (Lighting Domino Mannheim). Hikers exclaim about the clean air and difficulty finding the place, as they catch their breath in the clearing. Spirits are high, they might be on holiday but for the travelers they seek, who have already arrived. These loved ones have been told this is the end of the Journey.

The why of death for Joe (Jon Spano), Brian (Robert Maisonette), Felicity (Jenne Vath) is without debate, though unlike Sartre's"No Exit" or  Beckett's "Endgame," they do have interrogators. Unseen voices from above inquire about patients' "progress," psychological-physical states. Clinical yet intrusive, are they archangels as clinicians, reviewing  earthly existence pre-death, spurring realizations before the event? All we ever know is the clinical final intrusions are the price for this idyllic retreat. But when interrogators interview caretakers, such as Felicity's daughter, Agnes (Anita Daswani), they seem to be enabling catharsis.

Facing mortality is the subject of this brave play, and Cristofer 's compassion toward his doomed characters is a significant contrast to the Interrogators, as each of the three "families" play out their stories. Though souls may be debriefed after they enter the Afterlife, here they resolve issues before  and loved ones are willing participants. For the devoted couple Joe and Maggie, Jon Spano and Nikole Marone, there's is a duet of habit, need, love, with a fierce undercurrent--her defiance of his death. A large vibrant woman full of life, she is especially poignant hauling out favorite foods and memories to entice him home to their life. She refuses to enter the cabin.

It is up to Spano's Joe to convince her otherwise. He's a brilliantly understated ordinary guy, to her high emotionalism. Yet his understated performance is heart-tugging, as he clashes with her profound denial. Marone's Maggie fights for her happiness. Their son Steven (Leonard W. Rose) is cannily played as a cipher, since we know he hasn't been told about his dad's demise. Though he wants to play his guitar, he's continually interrupted by his mother. Only at the end is the guitar's balm his answer.

Brian's cabin was funny, sad and full of secrets. Maisonette's Brian is an intellectual, a guy who finds fascinating ideas everywhere. His search for truths is a preoccupation, profession, passion and way of life. But this Brian  also has a glint in his eye. He's a fine dancer and lover, busily filling his last . days writing endless intricate books, enjoying natural beauty and taking orders from his devoted caregiver Mark, Cameron Tharma.  Yet Brian yearns for romance. Abandoned by his wild wife, Beverly (Nicole Greevey), a lustful party girl and self confessed man trap, he fondly reminisces before she shows up.  Mark's virtuous indignation at Beverly's antics, sets up a harsh rhythm.

This cabin has a kind of cha-cha dance, as Beverly strips off her "Medals," trinkets from her ex-boyfriends, and sets about rekindling Brian's spark. Greevy's Beverly is a fabulous sensualist, drinking and dancing to arouse romance and life. She is outrageous in her bodily seductions, spilling out of a hilarious dress, sliding her limbs to more sensuous display. And she succeeds in a slow dance with Brian of perfect romance. In that moment, she compensates him for love lost (and regretted) by her catch- as-can existence. Greevey seamlessly switches from wild  to  serious Beverly, who wants to protect Brian from his unknown caretaker. Since he is also fiercely protective, Greevy and Tharma's chacha, taking each other's true measure, is fabulously revealing.

The Mother daughter pair had a mysterious missing sister to make up a third occupant. Their story is a disconnect, the mother, Felicity, is aged, seeming the resident closest to death and the one with the most visible scars of surgical battle against it. Jennie Vath plays Felicity's rants, knowing jokes and  grotesque quips with perfect comic timing. Why Felicity is alive is a mystery to her, and to Agnes, her long-suffering daughter played by Anita Daswani.  Daswani's Agnes well reveals the torturous poignancy of wanting death to finally take Felicity, yet holding her back--in her case without know it.

The cast of Regeneration Theatre was so  attuned to the music in Christofer's words, it was a pleasure to watch. I attribute their success in this soul-searing work to director Marcus Gualberto, who well choreographed the ebb and flow of human emotion. The audience was very moved. My friend, along with others, experienced a personal catharsis. They stood with "bravos" which I offer to Regeneration for having the courage to revive this play.

While moving and humane, I admire the production and the play though it didn't "speak" to me. I am more familiar with the extreme solitude of individuals coming to terms with death. In my experience loved ones have already, in some highly private way, made peace with the "maker," most often the deity within themselves. This private reconciliation I have heard articulated more in Samuel Beckett's "Oh Happy Day, "where an old woman on a mound lives her "happy" days in reminescence and as the days move on, she is gradually buried in a mountain of sand.  It is more true to me about death. For the existential state we live in, I like Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" and Beckett's "End Game." Both may be considered emotionally astringent but the pathos is profound. .


S.W.

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