The Shadow Box, by Michael Christofer | Directed by Kim Hardwick

Dino Dimitriadis & Red Line Productions | The Old Fitz Theatre (https://www.oldfitztheatre.com), Woolloomooloo, Sydney | Until 10 December

Isabel Hudson’s set for The Shadow Box initially seems overly simplistic — a row of timber chairs in front of a row of pine trees that symbolise the idyllic, peaceful location of the palliative-care cottages within a 1970s US hospital.

But wait, the trees are all swinging from ropes, severed at the lower trunk from the earth that’s still there and once sustained them.

Just as are three temporary residents in the cottages — cancer sufferers preparing to die, cancer sufferers who won’t be returning home. They’ve all been cut off from the world that once provided them with solidity and hopes for the future.

Christofer’s play is essentially about how we — and our loved ones — confront the prospect of our death, and it makes for a wearing, but extremely rewarding, couple of hours.

Their feelings and thoughts are portrayed as much through their conversations with an anonymous and unseen psychiatrist (Jackson Blair-West) as they are though family interactions and their own body language.

Joe (Mark Lee, whose excellence I first came across in one of the lead roles in Peter Weir’s great Australian film Gallipoli) more or less accepts that he is dying, but his Maggie (Jeanette Cronin) certainly doesn’t.

Her blind denial means that she won’t enter the cabin, and she certainly hasn’t told their teenage son Steve (Simon Thomson), who really just wants to play the guitar for his dad.

The bisexual Brian (Tim McGarry) adopts an attitude of reckless fun (gay abandon) as death approaches but it’s apparent that grim reality lives under a pretty thin veneer, particularly as confronts the clash between his sombre new lover Mark (Anthony Gooley) and his good-time ex-wife Beverley (Kate Raison).

The chemistry between Brian and Beverley is wonderful to watch — and provides the show's few lighter moments.

Meanwhile, wheel-chair-bound Felicity (Fiona Press) wanders between dementia and moments of lucid stroppiness, as she survives by virtue of dependence on daughter Agnes (Ella Prince), who accepts the inevitable with almost dispassionate and impassive acceptance.

The ensemble cast works well together — and equally obviously with director Kim Hardwick, who has knit them into a tight group.

This is certainly far from a fun night at the theatre, but it does provide a provocative insight into where we’re all heading. Well worth a look and a significant dose of contemplation.

Above: Fiona Press, Tim McGarry, Ella Prince, Mark Lee and Simon Thompson. All images: Robert Catto.

Ella Prince and Fiona Press.

Tim McGarry.