A Death in the Family 

Portland Playhouse's Dark, Complex Dying City

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IN PORTLAND PLAYHOUSE'S bold new production of Dying City, actor Wade McCollum pulls double duty: as Craig, a soldier killed in Iraq, and Craig's gay twin brother Peter, an actor struggling with grief over his brother's death. Providing a feminine counterpoint to the brothers is Craig's widow Kelly (Cristi Miles), a therapist. When Peter unexpectedly shows up at Kelly's apartment and the two see each other for the first time since Craig's funeral, they're forced to confront their feelings about Craig's death, even as some very uncomfortable truths are revealed via flashbacks to the night Craig shipped out.

Wade McCollum is one of Portland's most popular actors, but I have to confess to not being a member of the Cult of McCollum; I often find his characters gratingly chirpy, and that's exactly how he plays vain, good-hearted Peter. But McCollum's undeniably talented; for an example, look no further than the ease with which he snaps between two very different characters, straightening up in both posture and affect to play Craig. (One has to wonder if playwright Christopher Shinn wrote one of the twins as gay to make the characters' mannerisms more distinct.)

Shinn peppers his script with traces of foreshadowing that pay off in later scenes: For example, the brothers' fascination with one of Kelly's patients, a guy they refer to as "Fucked Her So Hard She..." because of his tendency to describe his sexual conquests in detail during therapy sessions, hints at dark themes to come. Dying City directly addresses sexual power dynamics with a frankness that's rare in popular discourse, but it's a lopsided dynamic, heavily weighted with the male libido; one can ascertain from the text alone that the playwright is a man. (If the relationships between these characters are a metaphor for our foreign policy, Kelly is the Iraqi people, the one caught between opposing agendas, the one getting totally fucked.)

Dying City is far more successful as a political work than as a relationship study: It's a show pointed at liberals, aiming to rattle the complacency and diffidence that allow us to respond to Jon Stewart's jokes about the Iraq War with amusement instead of horror. I can't think of a show in recent memory that has so powerfully and so directly bid to challenge the way its audience perceives the world, much less one that has succeeded.

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