Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Shadow Box, North by Northwest Theatre Company at City Theatre, February 6 - 22

Now, here is a very frightening place -- a hospice somewhere in California, in which a disembodied therapist with a warm but neutral voice projects himself into your cottage once a day. "How are you feeling? Would you like to tell me about it?" That voice is kind, as calmly reflective and enigmatic as a mirror, and it offers not the slightest shred of hope or counsel.

You look good, you might have a few physical twinges but you're not bed-ridden, everything is provided for your comfort. And you're left to get on with your dying. Reconciling yourself with the end of the road and with anger, consternation, or despair.

Michael Christofer's 1977 play is three in one, cutting together stories of Joe the middle class family man (David Dunlap), Brian the wordy, distracted professor (Robert Salas) and Felicity, an ancient woman who refuses to die because she imagines that a dead daughter will be returning soon (Anne Putnam). This choice of characters by Christofer might seem formulaic, a sort of diversity in a platoon on its way to an encounter with Death the enemy, but the impressive quality of the acting by this cast gives life and substance to them.

Director Kyle Evans and the North by Northwest cast move the action smoothly through an abstract set. We accept the eerie situation of small but well-furnished cottages wired up for surveillance, the inexplicable absence of concern about the justification, administration or finances of it all, and the inhabitants' complete blindness to one another. This is death by stare-down in a bare arena, with each inhabitant and companions face to face with the void.

For Christofer it is indeed the void, or at least the unknown. None of these characters has the help or crutch of faith or philosophy. Middle class Joe is fretful about the failure of wife Maggie (Aleta Garcia) to inform son Steve (Kenton Miscoe) of the unnamed disease, and he obsessively relives lost family life. Professor Brian churns out poetry and novels that he cheerfully acknowledges as completely without merit, and he embraces both his visiting wanton ex-wife (Michelle Cheney) and his attendant friend Mark, a male hustler whom he befriended in San Francisco (David Butts). Ancient Felicity is sour and angry when coherent but asleep or in a dream world most of the time, accompanied by her despairing daughter Agnes (Miriam Rubin).

The women companions of this piece are even more striking than the dying principals. Aleta Garcia as Joe's wife Maggie vibrates with anxiety and naked concern for him. Michelle Cheney is raucously self-dismissive, an unapologetic, bejewelled and bespangled devotee of impulse.

As Agnes, the dutiful daughter, Miriam Rubin (right) delivers a devastating performance, one of range and subtle intensity. Though she is largely silent in the early scenes, Agnes is the pivot of the play. She is the only family member to dialogue with the ghostly administration of this padded hell. For the first and only time the Interviewer (Philip Cole) appears, seated with her, courteous and attentive. He pulls out of Agnes a confession: in response to her mother's dementia, Agnes has for almost two years been trying to make Felicity happy by fabricating letters from Clare, the dead daughter.

The Interviewer suggests that this charade has kept Felicity clinging to life when she might be expected to let death take its course. Rubin shows Agnes's struggle to understand. Her indecision and her pained emotion in this confrontation and subsequently with her distracted, strong willed mother are elements of a performance to tear your heart out.

The piece rises to an enigmatic finale, as characters situated across the stage transcend their identities, very like a
Greek chorus, to speak of losses and of the pains of facing death.

The program says that this piece was "representative of a breakthrough in both matter and subject form" (sic), a comment substantiated to some extent by the Tony and Pulitzer prizes awarded to it. It is not an easy evening and it provides no reassuring answers. It's poignant, disturbing, and ultimately poetic.

Barry Pineo's review in the Austin Chronicle of February 12: "
Rubin quietly and believably makes Agnes' agony palpable. Rubin made me feel her pain, and you can't ask for more from an actor than that."

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