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Review: Dying City

Will Coviello on Christopher Shinn’s compelling drama, now on stage at The Shadowbox Theatre

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If you wanted to draw up a short list of subjects that might make a drama seem too heavy, you could start with 9/11, the Iraq War, grieving a lost spouse, infidelity and possible child abuse of a minor character who never appears onstage. Dying City has all of those. But Christopher Shinn's compact drama is strangely and starkly compelling as it digs into the unusual triangle of relationships between Kelly, her dead husband Craig and his twin brother Peter. The play was nominated for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and lost to Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.

  At Shadowbox Theatre, Monica Harris' engaging performance as Kelly propels the drama's fiery revelations at a nexus of grief and change. Kelly is in her apartment packing when Peter (Matt Story) makes a surprise visit. They haven't seen each other since Craig's funeral the year before, and Peter wants to know if she is suspicious about the U.S. Army's explanation of Craig's death in Iraq.

  Peter is still troubled by it, but he's also in the middle of a personal crisis. He's an actor and has just had a horrible night onstage, compounded by interpersonal battles with others involved in the production. All of his relationships seem to be burdened with complications, and the chaos bleeds from one partner or friend to the next. It makes him at best a hapless and at worst a treacherous figure. At times he seems like a victim of others and at other times of his own failure to negotiate difficult situations; the ambiguity heightens the drama. Story nicely balances his earnest sense of suffering and underlying neediness.

  Kelly is a therapist and she's well-equipped to humor him and see what's behind his concerns. As he draws her in, Harris' Kelly compellingly careens from calm and patient to upset and enraged, and issues that seemed laid to rest come roaring back to life.

  The action flashes back to a previous evening in the apartment when Peter visited Kelly and Craig the night before he departed for active duty. Peter got drunk and revelations about the brothers spilled out. Story plays both brothers, who thus can never appear on stage at the same time. That construction prevents Kelly from pinning them down on several points, but the scheme preserves some of the revelations.

  As suggested by its central metaphor, the work situates itself in the difficult gap between the cause of war and the reality of war. It deftly juxtaposes various forms of trauma and clouded memory. It's unclear whether a former boyfriend of Peter's survived childhood abuse, lied about being abused or exaggerated or conflated events to convince himself and others of abuse. Possible motivations for every explanation make the situation more complicated.

  Director Garrett Prejean keeps the tone balanced, the tension sharp and the 90-minute intermissionless work well-paced. It's a gripping work, bordering on psychological thriller, about the haze of memory and battle and revealing difficult truths.

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