A good play is hard to find in Charleston, especially when you’re looking for it in a strip mall at night. Even though I’d been there before (in the daytime), I had trouble locating the Charleston Acting Studio. On my second cruise around the block I saw it on the corner of Camp Road behind Walgreens, overshadowed by the neon delights of the Family Dollar next door.
Once inside I found an intimate space with stadium-style seating and bright LED lights. The set for this solid production of The Shadow Box is complex and impressive for such a small black box-style theater, decorated to suggest three cottages in a Californian hospice center. The patients at this hospice are all terminally ill; for maximum comfort in their final days, they’re given a place to stay and allowed family visits.
The play opens with the interview of Joe, played by Terry Terranova, seen in shows like Clue the Musical. Joe is a salt-of-the-earth guy who has worked hard all his life. As he sits on a stool bathed in blue light, he is interviewed by an unseen man (Tom Michal, A Flea in Her Ear) who speaks as dispassionately as possible given the circumstances. The audience is like a group of observers, sitting in the darkness monitoring him. The effect is suitably eerie.
We meet a second patient, Brian (Christian Self, Love’s Fire), a talkative teacher who tells stories whether the people around him want to hear them or not. He’s living with his lover, Mark (Ryan Ahlert, Forever Plaid), trying to deal with the mood swings caused by his medication.
The third patient is Felicity (Samille Basler, Twilight Zone), an aging, wheelchair-bound mother who rails against the doctors who have kept her alive this long. She’s cared for by her long-suffering daughter Agnes (Krissy McKown, Reefer Madness).
Joe’s tranquility is shattered by the arrival of Maggie (Linda Esposito, Sordid Lives) and son Stephen (Sam Book, A Christmas Carol). It will be the last time they see him, although Stephen doesn’t know that yet. Brian’s life is equally turned upside-down by a visit from his sloppy, trampy ex-wife Beverly (Andrea K. McGinn, Rumors) who proudly displays the gewgaws given to her by other lovers. She brings a lot of humor to a potentially stark, depressing scenario.
Director Jan Gilbert successfully keeps all these different relationships developing at a steady pace. Terranova and Esposito make a convincing mature couple, although sometimes they seem to be playing for a larger space than the studio. As written, Stephen is more annoying than he’s portrayed on stage here, but Book adds an air of calm and naturalism to his scenes. He also has a Bad News Bears-style foul mouth, which may have been funny in the ’70s when the play was originally produced, but is just distracting now.
Basler and McKown create a believable mother-daughter relationship. Basler manages to be cantankerous but still likable; McKown makes great use of her character’s development in act two. Self manages to play an intellectual bore without being boring. The understated Ahlert is also technical director — he designed the set, lighting, and sound, helped with set construction, and probably made the coffee. Since his character is quite aloof, he doesn’t get much chance to connect with the audience. McGinn has excellent comic timing and nails her more serious moments as well. Gilbert’s costumes include lots of little details that help add a sense of reality to The Shadow Box.
When some plays end, the characters cease to exist and you think nothing more of them. Gilbert gives us a strong sense that these people have had lives before we met them, and they will continue to live (for a while, at least) after we’re gone. We are the ones who fade away like winter shadows while the cottage dwellers remain, wrestling with their problems.
Considering this is the first full Studio production in this space and this is Gilbert’s first time directing a two-act drama, the results are highly competent. The story is clear, the acting engrossing, and the action moves quickly. I hope that Gilbert and her team will be able to mount further productions in the near future — and sneak some signs outside the studio to help visitors find it.