Big themes, small stage
Christopher Shinn’s Pulitzer-nominated play at the Blue Room Theatre
Chico, CA 95928
Inside, the Blue Room Theatre was almost completely stripped to its black-box shell. All black walls. Black floor. And a black stage upon which sat a modest two-person couch, a TV and a cabinet. To one side there was a pile of boxes of various shapes, two of which were tall and skinny rectangles standing on end. As the house lights dimmed to start the opening-night performance of Dying City, a spotlight on the two skinny boxes momentarily cast shadows in the shape of the Twin Towers on the back wall. The stage was again illuminated, the shadows disappeared, and a young woman entered the scene to continue her packing, putting away the towers with the rest of her boxes.
This very brief snapshot is a nice way to open the Blue Room’s production of Christopher Shinn’s 2006 Pultizer Prize-nominated play. Not only have towers come down, but so too has the life of young, New York therapist Kelly. She’s been in a state of transition in the year since her husband, Craig, died in the war in Iraq, and as she is preparing to get out of town for a fresh start, her dead husband’s twin brother, Peter, comes by unannounced, looking to catch up and share his grief.
The action stays right in the apartment, switching back and forth between the present conversation between Kelly and her husband’s gay, movie-star brother, and a conversation between Kelly and Craig, the Harvard-educated soldier, just before his shipping off to Iraq. While both conversations start off mundanely enough, slowly the stories are told and we start to see what lies beneath the surface of the main characters and how their choices and actions and hidden motivations mirror those on the grander stage of the war in Iraq.
In the program, dramaturgist Jeff Hull says the “dying city” of the title refers to Baghdad, but is likely equally applicable to New York struggling to rebuild in the wake of 9/11. And it might even apply to the disillusioned mid-American cities/towns of Craig/Peter’s upbringing, and even to the more intimate, delicate communities built up on shaky foundations by couples like Craig and Kelly as well. Though, I gotta say, expanding what happens on stage into those grand perceptions doesn’t happen till you leave the theater. It takes nearly the entire hour or so of the production to get to some of the juice. It’s interesting to eventually see where the couple struggled, the dynamics of the relationship between the brothers, and how the war and their choices leading up to it affected them all, but Shinn takes you through a lot of chatting before you get there.
Lynda Gizzi Gregerson plays Kelly, and Blue Room veteran Jeremy Votava plays both Craig and Peter, removing a pair of glasses offstage as he switches from Peter to Craig.
The tall and confident Votava had the perfect presence for the soldier, and was actually pleasingly self-effacing and thankfully not cartoonishly flamboyant as the gay brother. And his Clark Kent/Superman routine was well executed as he made the switch between the two. Gregerson did good work as the otherwise-intelligent/confident woman trying to hold it together. On this opening night, both actors had a few disconnected moments, which broke the mood in places, but overall, both were convincing in their interactions.
Director Hilary Tellesen kept things pretty loose here, letting the actors play off one another naturally. Although it should be noted that, even though the play looks casual, the pacing and marks are deceptively involved, and Tellesen, stage manager Sheena Thomas and the actors did their work by making things appear pretty seamless.
I can’t end without giving a shout out to set designers Mark McGinnis and Winston Alexander Colgan for keeping things appropriately stark. And extra-special kudos to stage assistant Thomas Billheimer III for his patient work with a borderline grueling, mostly imperceptible bit of manual special-effect making (that I won’t ruin by giving away).