THE SHADOW BOX -- At Ford's Theater through October 28.

When illness-and-death was just getting to be hot theater topic, in 1977, Michael Cristofer won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for "The Shadow Box," a play about three cancer patients facing, with their families, their imminent deaths.

It comes to Ford's Theater, in its first Washington appearance, after so many other plays about terminal illness that there seems to be a fresh reason for the theater's being known as The Fabulous Invalid. But this theme originally seemed to bring an icy, bracing reality to the stage, after so many years of plays about people agonizingly battling vague psychological disturbances. One has only to look at all the current movies about the dissatisfaction that apparently comes with having everything to redouble one's sympathy with characters whose problems are physical.

But what does "The Shadow Box" really say about death?

The premise is that three patients have been assigned comfortable, private cottages on the grounds of a hospital, to live out their last days with their families. In return for this, the hospital uses them to conduct some sort of a study of dying -- a study that, if it used federal money, would qualify for Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award. Its conclusion, and that of the play, is that people don't want to die.

If only one of these patients, having nothing to lose, would haul off and sock the doctor, who, from behind a one-way mirror chummily calls the dying by their first names and smugly offers them, as comfort, the great cliche' of our time, "It's all right for you to be angry." Or if the playwright had had the sense to have him, or some other character only vicariously involved in these deaths, be suddenly stricken, so as to shock us into remembering that no one is immune.

The three patients -- a kind family man, a cantankerous old lady and a directionless would-be philosopher -- have little to say about death except to marvel at how unexpected it is. But on the way to this triviality, there is, because of some good writing and some even better acting on the part of the two men's wives, effective documentation of what one's death does to one's survivors.

Zohra Lampert, as the ex-wife of the philosphical type, breezes tipsily in to visit him and his young male lover, bursting the lover's pride in self-sacrifice by the simple statement that dying is something one can accomplish all by oneself. This is not your standard stage-drunk scene, but one of drunken charm, making a what-the-hell point that's a strong contrast to James Luisi's charmless wordiness, as that cottage's patient, and Cris Romilly's charmless moroseness as his lover.

Another strong scene is between Lynn Cohen and Ron Bishop, as she tries to articulate what their long, simple, good, nonverbal marriage means to her -- that though the bond may be made up of little squabbles and a few giggles, with no real talk or shared recreational hours, his existance is essential to her.

The third, and least moving, family is a strained mother-daughter relationship, with Georgia Southcotte and Alexandra Borrie going through a dry and contrived version of mama-loves-the-dead-child-best.