Emptiness echoes from our first moments with Dying City. Motionless on the sofa, Liz Fisher as Kelly sits listening vacantly to Stephen Colbert's bright, acerbic chatter. She fingers a book; shifts her position; pushes at the stack of papers on the coffee table. An open cardboard box on the floor suggests packing or at least some interrupted task of organization. The buzzer sounds. Someone is downstairs and wants to come up.
Dying City is not about Iraq. It's not about politics, either, or about the war. Unless it's the war between men and women, made vivid for us by two gifted actors and three characters as a persistent, largely silent guerrilla war of emotional attrition.
Kelly's a therapist, psychologist and counselor. And, since this time last year, a widow. She's a young woman for whom time has slowed and meaning has ebbed away.
She understands that she needs to heal herself, but she lacks the will and energy to do so.
We learn this gradually, by witnessing her reluctant reception of Mark Scheibmeir as Peter, her brother-in-law. In an acute emotional crisis he has sought her out, unannounced, renewing his previously failed effort to establish some sort of complicity with her. The back-and-forth of tense familiarity between them at times suggests a psychological ambush, at times a genuine reunion, and at times a therapy session. Peter has been in New York for months, performing as the young lead in O'Neil's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Kelly has not once responded to his presence in the same city or his attempts to contact her.
We learn more in several memory sequences between Kelly and her husband Craig, also played by Scheibmeir, as Craig prepares to deploy for training and assignment to Iraq.
Playwright Shinn is looking both at human loneliness and at sexual dysfunction. Peter the actor is gay but profoundly ill at ease with that identity; Craig the Harvard scholar and Army reservist is factual, solid, gifted and traditional in gender identity. Kelly wants a child even though her therapy practice brings her daily into psychologically intimate, non-judgmental contact with patients tormented by non-functional concepts of self, gender and social behavior.
Our understanding of these relationships shifts several times in the course of the action. Shinn draws sharp word pictures. He gives chatterbox Peter some of those revelations, but not all of them, for the scenes between husband and wife turn some of our assumptions inside out.
Liz Fisher's Kelly is a character of complexity, disappointment, and distrust, endowed every moment with watchfulness and perception. Scheibmeir establishes the brothers Peter and Craig as such distinct characters in rhythm, attitude and detail that he might well be misread as being two different actors, were it not for the fact that they never share the stage. The sense of intimacy and immediacy is hypnotic. The acting and Derek Kolluri's direction of this piece deserve a standing ovation.
Capital T has added three performances to the four allotted through FronteraFest, so as of this writing you have only five opportunities to attend the piece.
Review by Dan Solomon at Austinist.com, January 21
Review by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at the Statesman's Austin360 "Seeing Things" blog, January 25
Review by Ryan E. Johnson at examiner.com, January 26
Review by Lauren Rundell in the Southwestern University "Megaphone," January 28
Capital T Literary Manager Carrie Klypchak interviews playwright Christopher Shinn, January 15
Click to view program for Dying City by Christopher Shinn, Capital T Theatre