The Shadow Box is the story of three terminal patients at a secluded hospital, all of whom have agreed to sit for a series of psychological interviews. The three live in cabins, the titular Shadow Boxes, on the hospital grounds. Their neuroses and their feelings about their impending deaths are probed in depth during the interviews, which serve as frame devices for the characters to expound on their pasts and on their motivations.
The play takes place over twenty-four hours, in three separate cottages on the grounds of a large hospital, in the United States. Within the three cabins are three patients: Joe, Brian and Felicity, who are to live with their respective families as they have reached the end of their treatment. They have agreed to be part of a psychological scheme where they live within the hospital grounds and have interviews with a psychiatrist.
It is morning and Joe is sitting in the interview area talking to the interviewer. We are introduced to the idea that he is dying and that his family are about to arrive, whom he hasn’t seen for most of his treatment. ‘The interviewer’ acts as a tool for each of the patients and their families to relay their feelings about their situation; the characters speak bluntly to the interviewer. Each of the families is introduced in this section of the play. When Joe’s wife andson, Maggie and Steve, arrive, it quickly becomes apparent that Maggie is avoiding dealing with the prospect of her future without Joe. She refuses to enter their cabin, while Steve has no idea of his father’s impending death.
Brian takes an aloof approach to his illness; he wants to live each day until the last. Rather than skirt the issues, he confronts them with a dark humor. His young gay lover Mark is with him at the camp. Beverly, Brian's "trashy but devoted ex-wife" arrives.
The third family is Felicity and her daughter Agnes. Felicity is "an old woman who drifts between senility and combative lucidness." Her daughter Agnes is "a mousy, browbeaten spinster who tries to keep her mother happy with fictional letters from a daughter who in fact is long dead."
It is a normal day for each of these characters; getting to learn their individuality is the heart of the play. The act flows between the serious and the humorous, often without a beat in between. The first act reveals that each of the three characters is radically different. They are connected by their futures, whether they are terminal or not. As the act ends Joe and Maggie are beginning to really talk, Agnes is struggling to connect to her mother, and Brian and Beverly are dancing.
It is nearing evening. Joe is still coaxing Maggie to come into the cabin, Brian and Beverly are reminiscing, while Mark becomes frustrated by his lover's jollity, and Agnes begins to talk to the interviewer. As the act continues, cracks are shown in Brian’s brutal forthrightness about his illness and Mark's feelings about his impending death. Beverly provides some raw insight within her seemingly scattered exterior. Joe and Maggie continue to struggle to have a real conversation about their future. Agnes reveals a secret about her sister Claire. We learn that she died some years ago in an accident in Louisiana. Over the past two years Agnes has been writing letters to her mother from her sister, and the interviewer presents her with some hard questions. More is learned about the characters lives before they became ill, material that makes their current situation more poignant. By the end of the act no moral conclusions have been drawn, no one has died, and no one is going to live forever. The audience thinks not about each person's impending death but what to do with this ‘moment’ that each has to live.