There are two salient aspects of Michael Cristofer's play "The Shadow Box," an intense look at how people face death. The first is that Cristofer doesn't wrap up the stories into nice neat packages with lessons learned at the end. No, he leaves them only partially resolved, a bit sloppy and unfinished. Just like real life.
The other remarkable thing about the play is the opportunity it provides for talented actors and directors to take on the kind of substantial, challenging work that can, if handled properly, affect those who see it for days -- and maybe a few late nights -- afterward.
The Herndon-based Elden Street Players meet that challenge with their current production of "The Shadow Box," resulting in a compelling theater event that features outstanding performances and burnishes their reputation as the boldest, most accomplished theater company in the area.
The 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play provides fertile material for director Holly Harrington and her cast of nine. Three people face eternity in individual cottages on the grounds of a hospice, each in their own way and with those closest to them. It's fashionable to say this play is really about life, but it isn't. It is about death, the abyss. Irrevocable, inevitable, unchangeable death. The diseases aren't even named as the focus is on people swinging at a shadowy foe that can be seen but not struck.
Cristofer's view seems to be that regardless of the paths people follow to this point, all humans share the same passage at the end. That view is expressed in the way these vignettes coexist, playing out in alternating scenes between the cottages, the stories not intersecting until the final moments, the characters locked in the various stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
In Cottage One is blue-collar Joe (Jeff Westlake); his wife, Maggie (Lisa Bailey); and son, Steve (Timothy Reinfeld), who hasn't been told Dad will not be going home. Failed writer Brian (Scott Bailey) inhabits Cottage Two with his late-in-life male lover, Mark (Forest Rawls III), and they are descended upon by Brian's flamboyant ex-wife, Beverly (Helen Pafumi). In Cottage Three we meet Felicity (Harriet Pilger), a weary woman who has obviously endured extensive surgery and is now blind and wheelchair-bound, attended by her dutiful daughter, Agnes (Michelle Oxley).
Harrington has found that fine line beyond which the charged emotional atmosphere becomes melodrama, and she keeps her actors from crossing it, underplaying their scenes and mostly eschewing extravagant expression except when unavoidable in the plot. This results in intimate performances that draw the audience closer and into the characters' lives more completely. It's a gamble with such dark material, a risk now paying rich dividends.
The actors periodically interact with a mostly unseen "interviewer" voiced by a slightly too-animated David Sher. Alone on a stool on the darkened set, drenched in a small circle of harsh light: It is the kind of moment for which actors yearn. And it is here that Oxley turns in a bravura performance, a harrowing journey of discovery resulting in chilling realizations that threaten to turn her best intentions upside down. In this focused setting, every facial muscle gets accounted for, and Oxley skillfully calibrates each nuance of feeling that Agnes experiences for a transcendent encounter.
Each cast member successfully creates a fully realized character, and it's a pity there is not enough space to explore these accomplishments. Of interest, Pilger, as the broken-down, foul-mouthed Felicity, is virtually unrecognizable from her recent regal appearance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in Vienna Theatre Company's "The Lion in Winter."
The effort is aided by Sher's versatile set design. Three adjacent spaces combine realism with a stylized background to provide the perfect balance of proximity and disconnection to underscore Cristofer's message.
"The Shadow Box" will be performed through Nov. 16 by the Elden Street Players at the Industrial Strength Theater, 269 Sunset Business Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 7 p.m. show this Sunday. For tickets or information, call 703-481-5930.