The Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse continues its growing tradition of providing serious theater for serious theater lovers with a fine production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, The Shadow Box, playing weekends through April 18.
Trust me, this one ain't for sissies.
It's about three terminal cancer patients living in separate cottages at a California hospice center and coming to terms with family and lovers as the end nears.
It's not nearly as gruesome as it sounds, though. In fact, director Saul Leibner's nine excellent cast members make sure that the heartwarming and humorous lines and moments by playwright Michael Cristofer get the same careful attention as the ones that rip open the heart, and the conclusion is beautifully life-affirming, thanks also to striking, on-cue lighting by Dave Stenger.
The subject of approaching death, of course, is engaging by itself, but Cristofer makes it more so with the use of an unseen Interviewer (an excellent Ken Murrin), whose questions and observations come from the back of the theater, making the audience feel as though they're actually "inside" the play, instead of observing it. The 159-seat Forum is the perfect size for this drama.
Even so, Leibner and Sheryl Depp's clever three-section set design gives each family its own individual space and look, while keeping their common anguish in dramatic unity, no small feat on such a small stage.
In Cottage No. 1 is Joe (Gary McCarragher), who has accepted his fate, even as his wife, Maggie (Jeanine Martin), refuses to face it, to the point that she doesn't even tell their son, Steve, an innocently fresh-faced Mark Lombardi-Nelson, that his dad is at a seemingly bucolic woodland resort for the purpose of dying.
McCarragher, a hospice physician in real life, perfectly captures the frustration that Joe feels as he tries to guide his wife toward the reality of his situation, even as Ms. Martin's Maggie seems stubbornly determined to deny it.
In Cottage No. 2 is the aging bisexual Brian, a luminous Bill Myers, and his young lover, Mark, a touchingly matured Dan Brijbag. They're visited by Brian's drunken, promiscuous former wife, Beverly, played with precisely the right amount of outrageous flamboyance by Morgan Reid, whose sheer acting talent could have consumed the stage had not Leibner found players to complement her performance, rather than be dominated by it.
Myers' Brian is consoled by this seeming intruder, even as Brijbag's Mark is obviously irritated by her — but she does know how to make an entrance and an exit.
In Cottage No. 3 is the elderly, forgetful Felicity, played with equal measures of comedy and tragedy by a delightful Pat Ryan. Felicity doesn't appreciate or even seem to like her long-suffering caretaker-daughter, Agnes, played with alternating stoicism and passion by Sheryl Depp, doing a superb job in her first major role at Stage West. Instead, Felicity longs for her other daughter, Claire, who never makes an appearance.
Even before the play opened, award-winning director Leibner said that this is the best cast he has ever had "and I've had some good casts." The proof is in the production, and it is a solid sterling one.
Kudos to Stage West for this and previous forays into out-of-the-ordinary community theater fare. Our area performing arts scene is all the richer for them.
Note: Because of the salty language (a favorite is the f-bomb) and weighty subject matter, the play is recommended for mature audiences only.