Dylan Jones’ new play brings a local Vietnam War veteran's story to life.
A black box theater is a performing-arts space designed for risk taking. At the Manatee Performing Arts Center, the Kiwanis Theatre actually resembles a black box. Tonight, it’s a sacred space. Seven actors of the Little Grey Hat acting troupe are rehearsing Dylan Jones’ latest play, “The Remnant.” They kid around, as performers do. But they’re filled with a sense of respect. A feeling that the story they’re telling really matters. It does.
The story is true. And its hero is real. His name is Jim Kyle.
Today, Kyle lives in Lakewood Ranch. In 1967, he was a fun-loving teenager with a draft deferment and a scholarship to Youngstown University. That all changed when his best friend, Danny Nicklow, was killed in action in America’s undeclared Vietnam War. After Kyle got the bad news, he followed in Nicklow’s footsteps. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines and became a second lieutenant. He spent the next 40 years on a quest to learn what happened to his friend.
Kyle poured out his heart in the pages of a short story. Christopher Johnston adapted it as a one-man extended monologue play in 2010 .
In 2015, Jones had just finished producing a run of “Copenhagen”—a rabbit’s hole journey into the life of physicist Werner Heisenberg. Rick Kerby, the Manatee Performing Arts Center’s producing artistic director, introduced the playwright and director to Kyle.
Jones talked to the veteran in person, read his short story and pored over the pages of Johnston’s script. And then it hit him.
Here was another illustration of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — a struggle to nail down the mercurial truth.
“Jim’s story touched me,” says Jones. “It was a first-person narrative — one man’s account of how the Vietnam War turned his world upside down. As I got into it, I could picture the events unfolding in my imagination. I started to see how I could bring Jim’s experience to life onstage.”
Why was he so moved by Kyle’s story?
“With Jim, you can’t separate the story from the storyteller,” he says. “He has a presence — a deep sincerity. Jim was eager to talk, and he mostly talked about his friend and not himself.”
Kyle’s unselfish yet proud attitude impressed Jones. His heartfelt stories about his best friend touched his heart.
“I wanted to honor Jim’s story,” says Jones.
The cast shares his commitment. Lead actor Jay Bowman has a special connection to Kyle’s story.
Bowman plays the older version of Kyle. He relates to the character on a gut level. Bowman flew helicopters during the Vietnam War and saw combat firsthand.
“Being a part of this means a lot to me,” Bowman says. “By speaking for one vet, we get to speak for so many others.”
Ren Pearson plays Kyle’s younger self. Along with being the director and playwright, Jones will also play the youthful Nicklow in the carefree summers before his death. Austin McKinley and Chris Hines portray a host of men who gave Kyle answers and guidance, including an officer who helps Kyle fake his way out of a failed physical and a staff sergeant who teaches him the fine art of avoiding booby-traps. Sherrie McKinley embodies the women in Kyle’s life: Nicklow’s shattered, grieving mother; Kyle’s estranged wife and a mystery woman who might hold the key to Nicklow’s fate in the jungle.
These seven actors bring Kyle’s story to life. Quick changes, minimal staging and specific lighting move the story along.
In the black box theater, the actors burn through rehearsal with few mistakes. “Old Jim Kyle” shares a mournful lesson.
“But no matter how good you are, eventually, you’ll make a mistake,” he says. “And there are no small mistakes in the jungles of Vietnam.”
A few lines later, and that’s it. The actors get through half the script and call it a night.
A brief glimpse gives a clear idea of the play’s structure. And its emotional heart.
“The Remnant” takes the form of a memory play, in the tradition of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” Strictly speaking, it’s an adaptation of Johnston’s original play. It also incorporates elements of Kyle’s short story and Jones’ conversations with the Vietnam War veteran.
Jones’ one-act play compresses a lifetime into 75 minutes. In a haunting sense, it’s really two lifetimes. The play is both a portrait of a young man and the man he would become. In another double-exposure, it’s also the tale of two Marines. One who came home. And one who didn’t.
In “The Remnant,” past and present unfold in parallel tracks. The older Kyle tells his story in the now. His simple narrative alternates with vignettes from the past. The actors show us what Kyle’s been talking about. The bare bones of his words become a flesh-and-blood reality.
Past or present, Kyle’s survivor guilt is the motor driving the action. He lived, but his friend died. Why? And what really happened?
“The Remnant” confronts you with those hard questions. For Jones, that was vital. Why? His play premieres five days before Memorial Day. That should give you a clue.
By putting Kyle’s story on stage, the director and playwright hopes to inspire other veterans to share their experiences. Tales of the Vietnam War. And other more recent conflicts, no less devastating to the survivors.
“Jim is an Everyman,” Jones says. “A normal guy who lived through very strange times. I know he’s not alone. Hundreds of vets are living all around us. They’ve all got stories to tell.”
For Jim Kyle, it’s all about the stories of those who never came back.
“My friend Danny Nicklow served in the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines during the Vietnam War,” he says. “They suffered the highest casualty rate and endured the longest sustained combat service of any battalion in Marine Corps history. Their incredible sacrifice earned them the nickname ‘The Walking Dead.’ My hope is that ‘The Remnant’ will carry these true stories of true American heroes to the next generation of Americans.”
A Conversation with Jim Kyle
The Marine who inspired “The Remnant” shares his insights.
Jim Kyle grew up in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania and joined the Marines after his best friend, Danny Nicklow, died in 1967 in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, during the Hill Fights. Kyle spent 19 months in Vietnam as a second lieutenant, infantry platoon commander, and was promoted to captain, class three reserves, after he returned. He has two children from his first marriage, Robert and Fabienne, and now lives in relative peace in Lakewood Ranch with his wife Bonnie. Kyle devotes as much time as he can to telling the stories of the men who fought and died in Vietnam. He’s grateful that playwright Dylan Jones has created a second theatrical adaptation of his (and Nicklow’s) story. We shared some of Kyle’s insights in our backstage feature on “The Remnant.” Here’s our full conversation.
Why is telling this story so important to you?
"As a Vietnam War veteran, my mission as a messenger of that conflict for the last 10 years has given me peace at last. Telling the story of my friend, Danny Nicklow, is the heart of that mission. He served in The First Battalion, Ninth Marines during the Vietnam War. They suffered the highest casualty rate and endured the longest sustained combat service of any battalion in Marine Corps history! Their incredible sacrifice earned them the nickname “The Walking Dead.”
Danny made such a profound effect on me while he was alive that my life changed forever when he died in Vietnam. The emotional roller coaster of my life experience brought questions deeply buried inside of me to finally surface after 40 years from his death. How did he die? Who was with him? What legacy did he leave behind? Finding the answers to those burning questions led me to write a short story, and then seek out theatrical platforms for that story."
What's it been like working with playwright Dylan Jones?
"Dylan has been working on this project for almost two years! He’s been dedicated to the story’s timeless narrative of sacrifice and loss of America’s conflicts and struggle. He has honored the sacrifice of those who stepped forward in a difficult time in American history. He has acknowledged the ongoing consequences of loss for the families and close friends of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Without Dylan’s tireless, objective efforts to bring this story to life there would be no story. The truth of what happened to Danny would be largely forgotten. But Dylan’s production has brought to life. I’m forever grateful to him for bringing this piece of American history and all who lived it, brought to the American Stage!"
How do you feel about putting your story on stage?
"Whatever venue I can present my story gives true meaning to real American heroes. Theatrical venues bring the story of the true Walking Dead come to life—and take the audience on a journey back in time. This honest story of a true American hero is an excellent alternative to the current glut of fictional superheroes that dominate the imagination of today’s youth. I hope to see more live stage plays—and honest historical movies—give equal thought and presence to the incredible history of our country and the people who made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Hopefully the untainted and naked truth of the consequences of War on stage and screen can present the true events of actual American triumphs and tragedies."
What do you hope audiences will take away from your story?
"Remembrance of the true heroes who’ve always been there for all Americans. The men and woman who put their lives ahead of self-interest and self-aggrandizement. They served—no matter what war, political situation, or circumstance. Like Danny, so many of these heroes died. Their tens of thousands of families and close friends will never forget them; and they’ll always wonder who they could’ve become if they hadn’t laid down their precious lives for us. With Memorial Day weekend close at hand, I hope the audience feels the same experience that has affected so many of us, and leaves with a better understanding of the tragedies of war. My hope is that “The Remnant” will carry these true stories of true American heroes to the next generation of Americans.”