THE SHADOW BOX, by Michael Cristofer. Directed by Rae Allen; setting by David Dorwart; lighting by Toni Goldin; costumes by Kay Haskell.

With Zohra Lampert, Ron Bishop, Bill Rowley, Alexandra Borrie, James Luisi, Scott Sorrels, Lynn Cohen, Chris Romily and Georgia Southcotte.

At Ford's Theatre through October 28.

The management of Ford's Theatre may never have set its programming do's and don'ts down on paper, but Michael Cristofer's "The Shadow Box," which opened last night, represents an emphatic departure from the Ford's norm.

Up to now, executive producer Frankie Hewitt and her cohorts have emphasized froth, folklore and flagwaving, on the theory, presumably, that our 16th President would want it that way, or that the Ford's audience might feel that he'd want it that way.

But if anyone was worried that a play about cancer and imminent death would seem incongruous just a few yards away from the most historic box seat in Washington, there was no real cause for alarm. The combination of an artful play, a crisp production and a dazzling star performance has a way of making itself welcome almost anywhere.

But that may be listing "The Shadow Box's" virtues in reverse order of importance.

First (to put first things first) comes Zohra Lampert as the boozing, bouncing ex-wife of one of the play's three interwining terminal cases. From the moment of her stumbling entrance in an ankle-length purple dress, toting a bottle of scotch like a pistol, Lampert ignites the show. She uses every available piece of her actor's equipment, internal and external -- feet, teeth, bosom, behind and a voice like a glass of sherry on a couple of cubes of dry ice.

Lampert's character, which she plays as if struggling to keep her balance on a raft heading through Niagara Falls, is one corner of a sexual triangle that includes Brian, her philosophizing ex-husband (to whom she once said, "We've done enough thinking, couldn't we just dance for a couple of years?"), and Mark, Brian's current, male lover. If this threesome sounds faintly familiar, well, that's because it is. "The Shadow Box" is as riddled with cliches as a house is with termites, but in fairness to Cristofer, some of the play's devices were a great deal fresher when it opened two years ago. And in more fairness to Cristofer, even his frailest ideas are fleshed out with flair.

"The Shadow Box" is set in "three cottages on the grounds of a large hospital," where terminal cancer victims face death alongside their families.

Lampert and Co. occupy Cottage Two. In Cottage One are Joe, an ordinary, materialistic middle-American (movingly played by Ron Bishop, who looks like a cross between Sidney Greenstreet and your neighborhood plumber), and Joe's wife Maggie (also forcefully played, by Lynn Cohen), who refuses to acknowledge his condition, or to tell their son Steve about it.

In Cottage Three is Felicity, who has "one lung, one plastic bag for a stomach and a spring and a battery, where my heart used to be," and is dutifully attended by an unloved daughter. To her doctor, Felicity complains, "You cut me up and took everything that wasn't nailed down."

"The Shadow Box" suffers from the usual problem of multi-strand dramas -- invariably one strand is more interesting than the others. And Lampert's riveting performance somewhat aggravates the problem.

But Cristofer knows just when to shift from one thread to another, and director Rae Allen knows just how. If the play ends without any great sense of profundity, it also ends with a great deal of theatricality, as the patients and kin step forward and pay a rhythmic tribute to the value of life.

Cristofer is yet another product of the astonishing theater machine that is Catholic University, so it is doubly surprising that this Pulitzer Prize-winning play took two seasons to get to Washington.

Better late than never.