Theater Review: Dying City Looks For Life Among War’s Survivors

Second Thought Theatre continues to prove itself as one of the boldest, brashest collections of artists in North Texas, and Christopher Shinn’s Dying City caps off an exceptional year. Well-known Dallas actor Lee Trull makes his directorial debut with this emotional, two-actor drama that probes the oftentimes dark and complicated recesses of family relations.  Trull imparts his straightforward, yet brilliantly nuanced acting style to the extraordinary performances in this play.

The story, which is becoming more and more common in this decade of war, centers on Kelly (Grace Heid), a therapist who is dealing with the loss of her husband, Craig (Rhett Henckel), in Iraq. It’s a year later, and Craig’s identical twin brother Peter (Henckel) drops in unannounced. Peter is a successful Hollywood actor in town to do the play A Long Day’s Journey into Night (an emotional family drama in its own right), and he has been trying to contact the hard-to-reach Kelly, who attributes her avoidance to a need for “mental space.”

There are a few revelations and secrets that come to light through Peter’s visit and a series of back and forth flashbacks with Craig that add even more complexity and pathos to the already painful equation for the survivors of their loved one’s death. Heid, in her Dallas debut, plays the distraught Kelly with a tight, agitated tremor in her voice. It is a constrained, pulled-in performance that attempts to convey deep, deep sadness and loss without becoming too overt.

Henckel’s challenge, a formidable one at that, is to play both brothers, who are very different men, as fully realized persons and not just caricatures. Craig is a Harvard-educated army officer with aspirations to finish his Ph.D. on Faulkner when he gets out of the military. Henckel interprets the “dependable,” yet flawed brother as an outspoken, type A personality, but with touching vulnerability. Henckel’s Peter is a bundle of relationship-challenged boundless energy that wants to share too much. It’s a mini master class of multiple personality acting at its finest, and Henckel garners success in both his iterations.

The clever, if utilitarian set design (Leah Spillman) incorporates a sofa, a few tables, and a sometimes-transparent screen where we see Craig/Peter make different exits and costume quick changes throughout the action. Sound design (Matthew Gray) is made up of ubiquitous and ever-present noises of the big city slowly blending to a crescendo of arresting battle sounds. Languid covers of contemporary pop songs set the mood throughout.

The play is a tense and touching drama that also weaves in some topical riffs on religion, literature, pop culture, and, of course, the politics of war. It’s a good piece of writing that allows, thanks to Trull’s focused directing, performances that transcend the words on the page to stick with you long after the lights go down.

Photo: Rhett Henckel and Grace Heid (Credit: David Leggett)