CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE
Vigil
Means Waiting For What Never Comes

By Geary Danihy

You want ice cream and butterscotch syrup. The ice cream - very good ice cream, at that -- is in the
bowl and the syrup is tantalizingly suspended above the ice cream in a ladle that quivers and shakes
but does not deliver. You wait, anticipation growing. A golden drop falls, and then another and
another, but that's it. That's all the syrup you're going to get, so you might as well eat what you've
got and enjoy.

Watching Vigil, a play by Morris Panych that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse,
evokes much the same emotions as the ice cream experience. It's not exactly what you are led to
expect, it's not what is tantalizingly possible, so you are forced to settle, leaving the theater happy
yet less than totally satisfied.

The ice cream in this case is Timothy Busfield, who has appeared on television in such series as
The West Wing, The Paper Chase, and Family Ties, to name just a few, and in films such as
Stripes, Field of Dreams and Revenge of the Nerds. In Vigil, which is crisply directed by Stephen
DiMenna, Busfield plays Kemp, a misanthropic bank employee who is moved by a letter from his
dying aunt, whom he hasn't seen in decades, to visit her and stand vigil as she lives out her final
days.

The butterscotch is Helen Stenborg, the Tony-nominated actress who, along with her husband,
Barnard Hughes, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Drama Desk in 2000. Stenborg
plays Grace, or Auntie, a somewhat bedridden lady who Kemp descends upon eager to get it all over
with as soon as possible.

Kemp is awash in neuroses and negativity, and Busfield brings him and all of his frustrations to life
in often hilarious fashion in scenes, many lasting less than a minute (in the play notes, playwright
Panych calls them "Blinks.") that progressively reveal Kemp's intentions and the growing relationship
between the two characters. Worried more about his hairline than the comfort of Auntie Grace, he
let's no opportunity pass to remind her of her imminent demise, commenting on her will and her
headstone and acting out for her exactly how he will mourn her loss at the funeral parlor. The set-ups
and punch lines for these scenes are initially quite funny, but this particular shtick grows a bit
tedious long before Kemp tires of the routine.

As the seasons change and Christmas draws nigh, Kemp, frustrated that the old lady shows no
signs of quickly passing on to her reward, builds a Rube Goldberg device to allow her to choose
when (quickly, he hopes) and how (electrocution or head crushing) she wishes to end it all. The
scene inevitably devolves into improbable slapstick that is, like all slapstick, entertaining but shallow.
Returning to the ice cream analogy, the problem with Vigil is that Panych has chosen to give Grace
perhaps 30 words to say in the entire play; she speaks only two words in the first act and these are
delivered at its close. Thus, Stenborg is forced to continuously react to Busfield's lines, which she
does with an impressive array of facial expressions and body language. The two words that close act
one are the first dribbles to fall upon the ice cream and create, at least in one audience member,
anticipation of much more to come in the second act. Alas, it is not to be.

The problem is not just that Grace is given few lines, it is that the play cries out for someone to
answer Kemp's diatribes and misanthropic monologues, to give him a good tongue lashing and make
him see what a selfish, self-serving little wimp he is (not that he doesn't already know this, but it
would be nice for the audience to hear it expressed). Grace's relative silence creates an imbalance
that doesn't so much mar the play as make it less than what it obviously could have been.

Lack of fulfillment, however, is not a problem for set designer Andromache Chalfant, who has
created a set whose overall effect is that of a moment in time frozen in amber. Grace's bed is the
focal point, positioned stage center, in a loft with concrete pillars and windows (which lighting
designer Ben Stanton takes full advantage of) that have been papered over in yellowed newsprint,
and a cracked tile floor. Surrounding her bed are ancient remnants of a lifetime: a gramophone, an
age-tinged upright piano, ratty clothes hanging from a clothes rack and curled newspapers stacked
near the door. It is, in essence, more of a mausoleum than an apartment, and subtly sets the proper
tone for what occurs within its confines.

The Playhouse's first offering since the departure of its artistic director, Tazewell Thompson, is a
somewhat uneven comedy, staged with panache, that delivers quite a few moments of high hilarity.
Busfield's droll performance (essentially a monologue) evokes sufficient laughter to make the evening
enjoyable, yet it cannot completely overcome the vacuum created by the playwright's decision to
have one of the characters in this two-character play remain essentially mute.

Vigil runs through Saturday, March 15. For tickets or more information call 227-4177 or go to
www.westportplayhouse.org.


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