Death Explored in a Unique Way

By Rosalind Friedman

The quirky play, Vigil (at the Westport Country Playhouse), proves a couple of things:
first, a Canadian can have an off-beat sense of humor. This absurdist work by Morris
Panych, an award-winning playwright in his country, certainly explores death in a unique
way. Every line defies traditional ideas and behavior. Second, Timothy Busfield, whom
we've enjoyed on television, is an excellent actor, carrying, here, what could be
considered a one-man demanding show.

However, let us not count out Helen Stenborg. Ms. Stenborg, wife of the late great actor
Barnard Hughes and mother of Director Doug Hughes, has had a remarkable career in
the theater. Playing Grace, an elderly woman of few words, while sitting propped up on
pillows and knitting in a large brass bed, her attention and response to every word that
Busfield utters, is amazing. Her pretty, perky face topped with snow-white hair reflects a
myriad of emotions.

Busfield affects an air of naivete and cruelty as a character named Kemp. Neatly dressed
in a striped suit, shirt and tie, carrying an old green suitcase, he arrives in Grace's
cluttered, worn apartment, announcing that he is her long lost nephew; it seems she's
sent him a letter summoning him to her death bed, but looks shocked to see him. What
transpires in a series of staccato scenes is a 40-something man, neither gay nor
straight, telling his sad and lonely life story, which includes his terrible parents, and his
tutor, a Roumanian dwarf, to a woman who for the most part listens. Kemp castigates
his aunt for never writing him or sending a gift for over 30 years. His point of view is laced
with black humor and a candor that can only be called rude and macabre.

Do you want to be cremated, he asks bluntly. You must sign your will, he states openly.
I will inherit everything from you. Meanwhile, while he is waiting impatiently for her to die,
and plotting ways to kill her, he makes and serves her, her favorite butterscotch
pudding-my favorite, too. She, in moments when he is not there, gets up out of bed,
spryly, and walks around, even smoking a cigarette. He, throughout the two years he is
there, stares out her dirty window and wonders about a woman sitting in the window
across the street.

There are hysterical surprises that I cannot reveal. Director Stephen Di Menna could have
used a faster pace; but considering the challenges he does a good job. The many
scenes are interspersed with interestingly modern music featuring cello and piano
composed by The Broken Chord Collective. Lit warmly by Ben Stanton, the intricate
Scenic Design by Andromache Chalfant, daughter of noted actress Kathleen Chalfant, is
a triumph of detail. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are fine, particularly the flowered robe
Kemp wears. In the end, Kemp's grief at Grace's death is heartfelt. And we are left to
ponder the hate/love conundrum. ###

This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1fm Fine Arts Radio

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