The UMass Theatre Guild’s Production of “The Shadow Box” Shares a Story of Hope
By Mary Margaret Hogan '18 | Friday, April 20, 2018
Mary Margaret Hogan '18
Friday, April 20, 2018
Closing April 14th, the UMass Theatre Guild ended its run of Michael Cristofer’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play The Shadow Box. The director John H. Llewellyn ‘20, an english and theater dual degree student initially pitched the play to the Theatre Guild for its award-winning text as well as the unique acting opportunities the script provides the actors. “I knew I wanted to direct it because of how
passionate I am about the story and how much life I see in these characters,” Llewellyn shared.
The show follows three terminal cancer patients in hospice care during the mid-1970s as they are visited and attended by their family and close friends. Throughout the piece, interviewers conducting psychological studies of the patients provide audience members a lens into the psyche of patients as well as the experiences of their family members. “I center [my vision] in on the line ‘If I am dying … Then I must still be alive.’ The Shadow Box is not a play about dying,” Llewellyn clarified, “It is a play about what to do with your last moments. It raises the questions of what one finds most important in life. It highlights the loved ones who need to make hard decisions. It explores the importance of memory.”
With the show’s more difficult themes, Llewellyn encouraged his actors and all other production team members who entered the room to feel safe and to keep an open dialogue about the sensitive content. “Death and illness is something that affects everyone’s lives in one way or another,” he shared, “Every staging rehearsal began with an hour of table-work where we talk through the story and the arc of the characters. We then stage the scenes as a team, incorporating the actors’ natural impulses and my essential tableaus. With this regimented and collaborative process, it makes the difficult content more approachable for both me and the actors.”
Theater major and actor Eileen Vandewalle ‘19 commended the production team for their careful handling of the content. “It was a well-kept balance of keeping things professional, but also creating awareness that we, although actors, are still students and people at the end of the day with real emotions and connections to this heavy subject matter. We are allowed to ask for breaks whenever we need them, and at any point we can choose to step out of the rehearsal space.”
The production not only marks the Theatre Guild’s first performance in the newly acquired Arts Bridge performance space, but the action of the show also uniquely takes place in-the-round. “When reading the script, I wanted to find the best way I could highlight the incredible natural dialogue Michael Cristofer laid out,” director Llewellyn explains, “By putting the audience on all sides of the actors, a heightened sense of reality is created for the audience; they are close enough to feel included in the action.”
The in-the-round style was a first for many of the actors in the ensemble. English major Jake Kirby ‘20 plays Mark, the boyfriend of a terminally ill Brian who finds himself in the difficult position of meeting Brian’s ex-wife in the hospice setting. “As an actor, there is a greater sense of accountability [performing in-the round]as I will be subject to audience members from all angles,” he mentioned, “The natural intimacy of theater in-the-round makes for a unique audience-actor relationship, one I am excited to experiment with.” With an intimate setting and limited seating, audience members are immersed in the emotional landscape of each cottage. Accompanied by a minimalist approach, Llewellyn eliminates all need for excessive props or scenery and instead focuses on the most important part of the piece: the people.
Broken up into separate storylines surrounding three hospice care patients, the cast was rarely called for rehearsal at the same time. However, the piece portrays a tightly knit ensemble with interwoven narratives. “Coming together and working on this wonderful piece of art as a community was inspiring, to say the least,” Kirby revealed, “Everyone has worked so hard on the show and I am hopeful we can convey the expressionism necessary to do it justice.”
With infectious energy and unwearied encouragement, Llewellyn has brought this production to life and provided a nuanced interpretation to the aged text. Surrounded by dozens of photographs from years past, each character finds themself enclosed by memories and constantly sparring with the imaginary opponent. Llewellyn encourages audience members to embrace the story beyond its darker themes. He said,“I hope people leave The Shadow Box and they see how important it is to find hope everywhere, even in the darkest of places.”