Nine area actors found themselves in an unusual position when they auditioned for "A Streetcar Named Desire" recently.
They won the part, only the part was in a different play. After seeing the group dynamic in rehearsals, Central Lakes College Theatre Director Patrick Spradlin decided to do "The Shadow Box" instead of "Streetcar."
The play, featuring seven CLC students and two community members, kicks off with a 7:30 p.m. show today at CLC's Dryden Theatre. It continues Friday through Sunday and May 1-4.
"'Shadow Box' had been percolating in the back of my head for a while," Spradlin said in a recent interview over lunch at CLC. "Looking at the people we had cast, I seized upon this production, which I felt matched their talents and abilities."
"The Shadow Box," which explores the feelings of three terminally ill patients and their loved ones, may not seem like very sunny material for a spring production, but Spradlin insists it's not a dark play.
"It's a funny play, sometimes even hilarious," he said. "It's dealing with this weighty thing, but if it was just people burrowing into a hole and being depressed, that would be poor drama. (The characters) have no hope of surviving, but how they face it is inspirational. There's also the hope that stays behind with the survivors. If you look at the ending of 'Streetcar,' there's no question that's a much bleaker play."
Michael Christofer adapted "The Shadow Box" from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' book "On Death and Dying." The play won the 1977 Tony Award for Best Drama and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Like "Streetcar," it has been adapted into a film. But "The Shadow Box" isn't as well known, despite the fact that Christofer's script was ahead of its time in portraying a gay couple in one of its three story arcs. Brian's (Leif Nesse) ex-wife Beverly (Maureen Stanton) finds she has something in common with Brian's new lover Mark (Andrew Otterstad).
Agnes (left, Jessica Benson) has a talk with her dying mother Felicity (Brianna Keran) in the Central Lakes College production, "The Shadow Box." (Dispatch Photos by Steve Kohls)
"(At the time), it was a bold thing to have a male lover in a play," Spradlin said. "But it's still the classic love triangle, just turned around a bit."
But while gay characters may stir up controversy even today, that's not the point of the play.
"A recent revival in New York was blasted by a critic because he felt it should have dealt more with AIDS," Spradlin said. "That was ridiculous. It's not an AIDS play, it's not even a cancer play. It's about dealing with any illness, that brush against death."
The other story lines explore characters who refuse to accept their situation.
Joe (Doug Larson) is at peace with his inevitable death, but his wife, Maggie (Fay Lytle), is in denial. She even hides the truth of Joe's condition from their son (Ross Derheimer).
If you go
What: "The Shadow Box" Presented by: Central Lakes College Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday and May 1-3, 2 p.m. Sunday and May 4
Where: Dryden Theatre, CLC Cost: $5; free for CLC students
The final story arc features an elderly woman named Felicity (Brianna Keran), whose daughter, Agnes (Jessica Benson), perpetuates the lie that Felicity's other daughter is coming to visit her; this gives Felicity something to cling to. There's a twist in this story that will surprise audiences, Spradlin said.
The director notes that theater is often used as an outlet to explore death.
"It's addressed more often in theater than in TV or film, with the exception of offshoots like independent film or something like 'Six Feet Under.' Death makes people squeamish, our society doesn't like to talk about it. Theater is the one place to go where things are less sugarcoated."
Although the production has gone fairly smoothly, Spradlin said the casting of college students in the roles of older characters has posed interesting challenges.
"But that's always a challenge in theater," Spradlin said. "Actors always have to adapt to the extraordinary situation of their character. That's why actors do research first, to try to connect."
Still, the casting of community member Rebecca Souhrada, who has lost a loved one to cancer, has been a nice boost to the production. Souhrada plays the interviewer who ties the three stories together.
"She brings life perspective to the play that might not be there with a 19-year-old actor," the director said.
Spradlin has been impressed by the versatility displayed by the actors who have appeared in all three of the plays he's directed this school year. He points to Nesse, who played the larger-than-life MacBeth, and Larson, who played a clownish character in "Brother Truckers."
In this play, "You really believe the moment-by-moment dialogue of these characters," Spradlin said. "This play is realistic, it's about inner motives and subtext."
"The Shadow Box" has touched members of the cast and crew who have lost loved ones or survived illnesses such as breast cancer themselves. Spradlin believes the play will resonate with audience members as well. It promises to provide humor while doling out the occasional zinger of a line that will stick with the viewer long after the play ends. "No matter what they tell you," one character says somberly, "you always think you have more time."
"This play is not for everybody. People who are really sensitive, or have experienced a recent death of a loved one, might not appreciate it as much," Spradlin said, also pointing to the strong language and adult situations.
"But ultimately it's cathartic. It's uplifting."
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