For its debut production, the newly formed Center City Theatre Works is presenting the award-winning drama “The Shadow Box” May 5-21 at Upstairs at the Adrienne.
Written by Trenton-born actor, writer director Michael Cristofer, “The Shadow Box” was groundbreaking when it debuted in 1977 as the story visits a trio of terminally ill patients, each in a separate cottage at a hospice facility, as they are interviewed about the process of dying.
One of the patients is Brian, a bisexual English professor being cared for by his lover, Mark. It is believed that this is the first stage production to feature a gay couple dealing with the issues of death and dying.
The other dying characters include Joe, a middle-aged, blue-collar family man who accepts his fate even though his wife doesn’t; and Felicity, an elderly woman suffering from dementia who is cared for by her devoted and underappreciated daughter.
Center City Theatre Works founder Jeffrey Lesser, who is directing the show, has a familial link to the play: His uncle, producer Leonard Soloway, was one of the original producers of “The Shadow Box” on Broadway. When the play opened in 1977, it was met with immediate acclaim, winning a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Desk Award.
Lesser said having that link to the original production, as well as exposure to the inner workings of the theater industry, made it more comfortable for him to tackle such a highly praised work.
“Thanks to him I was around it a lot,” he said about Soloway. “I had incredible opportunities to see tons and tons of shows on Broadway through him. I got my training from seeing and being around it. He’s had a tremendous impact on my life. I’m so pleased that I know [‘The Shadow Box’] so well. It’s been heaven to delve into it. I saw it when I was 15 years old and I have seen many productions since. I know the script so well. So I feel like it’s a labor of love just putting it out there so that others can see it. In Philadelphia, we’ve found it’s only been done once as a reading and one other production in all these years. It’s so great to bring it to Philadelphia.”
Marc Forget, who plays Brian, is also a longtime fan of “The Shadow Box.”
“Years ago when I went to acting school, I did one of these monologues to get into school,” he said of his experience with the play. “I did a monologue for Mark and, with time having passed, I think it was time for Brian. I saw a production of it on Broadway in the 1990s. I’d seen it and I’d read it a couple of times.”
Part of the reason “The Shadow Box” has remained relevant since its debut is because the stories of the characters aren’t set in a particular time period, so audiences now can relate to them.
“It’s so incredibly well-written and the stories are so real that every person will find someone to strongly identify with in the show,” Lesser said. “It’s about dying and death, which obviously hasn’t changed much. What’s brilliant about [Cristofer] is he never discussed what each person in the play is dying of. It was before AIDS and yet there’s this story of the gay couple where one is dying and it could be AIDS now. It’s never mentioned. It’s kind of timeless because we’re all dealing with the exact difficulties of losing someone and learning to live in the now. There might be a woman who’s watching it that has had a difficult relationship with her mother. There’s a relationship like that. There’s the story of losing a lover. People can identify with that. One of the stories is having to tell a 14-year-old what’s happening. There’s the wife who absolutely won’t look at reality. There’s so many different relationships in this play and there’s something for everyone that would touch their lives and their experiences.”
Forget also appreciates how the play doesn’t specify what diseases the characters suffer from, adding that his interpretation of the story and characters’ circumstances has changed since he first saw the play.
“I saw it in the 1990s and I thought Brian had AIDS only because that was much more part of the conversation at the time,” he said. “Yet, as we’re doing it now, I don’t think it is AIDS and I don’t think it matters. Later on if, God forbid, there is another plague of some sort, people might think they’re dying of this disease. So there’s something that’s kind of universal about the reason behind it. It’s a topic that will never go away and it’s a topic we continue to ignore. In cultures like Japan, there is an appreciation for the elderly, wisdom that comes with age and caring for aging family members. In America, we’re extremely youth-focused and therefore the topic of death has been at odds with this obsession with youth. Therefore we don’t talk about it. So I think it will always have relevance unless one day we change the culture and that becomes part of the conversation that happens early in life. Until that happens, I think this will always be an important play.”
Forget added that the diversity among the characters who are dying or dealing with death in the play adds to its appeal, particularly with his character, Brian.
“The fact that he’s in the prime of his life in a way [makes him relatable],” he said. “He’s in his 40s. He sounds like he had a full life and was intellectually very engaged. And suddenly this happens: He learns he has a fatal disease. I think people should be able to relate to that in a sense that, well, it can just happen to anybody. If it was only elderly characters that were dying it might be harder for people who are younger to relate to it. Whether people in their 20s and teens can relate to it, I don’t know, although there is a teen character whose father is dying. But I guess I think [Brian] is a likable character.”
Even though “The Shadow Box” is focused on the subject of death and dying, Lesser said there is some humor to be found in the characters. This is especially true in Brian’s case.
“One of the characters, the ex-wife of the gay man in it, is just a hoot,” Lesser said. “She comes dressed very shockingly and she exhibits all the different medals from all the men she’s been with. She’s very fun and funny. Then there’s the old woman who’s pretty crotchety and very feisty: She does a whole turn where she sings ‘Roll Me Over, Lay Me Down and Do It Again.’ It’s very funny.”
Forget said the dynamic between Brian, his lover and his ex-wife does make for some interesting theater.
“Brian has a good relationship with Mark,” he said. “They’ve been together for a few years. Beverly he hasn’t seen for a long time and, clearly, when he sees her he’s quite happy despite the fact that the divorce was rough when it happened. Individually for Brian, he gets along with both of them but when the three of them are together, there’s definitely a lot of tension between Beverly and Mark. Mark is a little territorial about it and Beverly is not always subtle in her interactions. For Brian, it can be a little bit uncomfortable getting two people he loves to get along.”
Center City Theatre Works presents “The Shadow Box” May 5-21 at Upstairs at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. For more information or tickets, visit www.centercitytheatreworks.org or call 215-546-6718.