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Delving Into a Dark Topic

Marlena Becker and Connor McCombs performing in “The Shadow Box,” opening on Friday at the Artists Theatre.Photo by Susan Elliot

Marlena Becker and Connor McCombs performing in “The Shadow Box,” opening on Friday at the Artists Theatre.Photo by Susan Elliot

Three patients facing imminent death and quartered with their families in quaint cottages are observed by psychiatrists studying how people deal with terminal illness.

The families take their loved ones’ inevitable demise with varying degrees of grace.

That’s the premise of “The Shadow Box,” a scenario spanning 24 hours and written by actor Michael Cristofer. The play that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 will open tonight at the Artists Theatre at Laguna Beach High School, the last play of the school year.

While a play centered on death and dying might be off-putting to some, the cast, including student co-directors Tony Davia and Noah Pattillo, fully embrace it. “I knew people who went through similar situations and I could connect with the play,” said Pattillo. “It’s a universal theme that anyone can connect to on some level.”

Usually drama instructor Mark Dressler or a guest director lead student productions. With this show, he decided to revive a dormant practice of selecting student directors. “It’s been a light season this year but my students long to also work on pieces with seriousness,” he said. “ ‘The Shadow Box’ is perfect since it is big but not too big with a cast of 10, including two accomplished young actors who longed to direct a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

Student directors decided to keep the full cast on stage throughout the entire play, showing the patients, their families and their interviewers. “For students to give direction to their peers is doubly inspiring,” he said.

Davia, 18, said music, acting and now directing experience will come in handy as he studies the business side of the arts as a business or economics major at Chapman University. “I have always loved acting but really wanted to direct this time. The characters are really rich and rather than just choosing one, I wanted to delve into analyzing all of them,” he said. This summer he also wants to begin screen writing and put together his own production company. “I’m excited by the idea of producing stuff that I write and can act in,” he said.

Pattillo, 18, said that the students worked at finding a show large enough to accommodate a large variety of talent and small enough to still be manageable.

“The biggest challenge was to get in touch with nine characters instead of just one, but also give actors enough time to connect with their character,” he said.

He expects directing experience will give him a leg up when he enters Boston’s Emerson College this fall as a theater education major. “In the performing arts we need to connect with people on different levels and the bonds I have created here will lay the groundwork for connections I will form for the rest of my life,” he said.

Marlie Becker, 17, describes inhabiting the character of Beverly, ex-wife of terminally ill gay Brian, as a growing experience.

Traer Freeman, 18, who is cast as Brian, also found plenty to take away from “The Shadow Box.” “My character has come to terms with the fact that he’s dying and sees his condition as a chance to do what he couldn’t while he was still working,” explained Freeman, who will enter Boston University as a history major this fall.

“It’s interesting to play someone who is enlightened and happy in an adverse situation and cool to see the effects of impending death of different groups of people, with some accepting and others mad or freaking out.”

The cast also includes Connor McCombs, Sam Dameshek, Zane Fair, Makenna Pitz, Anya Gourley, Tatum Moore, Lucas Connor and Nanette Smith. They all recently starred in the Park Avenue Player production “Guys and Dolls.”

LBHS students Kenji Lee, Elijah Meisse and Elliot Glass composed an original musical score for the production. Lighting, sets and costumes were not in the hands of students but of Peter Roche and Angela Irish, respectively.

“The Shadow Box” at the LBHS Artists Theatre, 625 Park Ave. May 23-25, 29-31 at 7:30 p.m. Students, $10; adults, $15. 949 497-7769.

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