Comic, charming look at dying and loneliness in Westport's 'Vigil'

by David A. Rosenberg

If you think a play about a deathbed watch is bound to be dreary and depressing, think again. Morris
Panych's "Vigil" is cheerful and compassionate. A two-hander on the budding relationship between a
dying woman and the reclusive nephew who comes to take care of her and ease her into her demise,
"Vigil" substitutes mordant humor for morbidity. Although it's filled with increasingly annoying
blackouts (which the director dubs "blinks") between its 37 scenes and threatens to repeat itself into
oblivion, "Vigil" is charming entertainment.
The nephew, Kemp, bidden to her bedside by his Aunt Grace, is a pathetic loser. A nondescript,
asexual, forlorn bank clerk, he doesn't even remember to fill his suitcase with the money he intended
to steal when he quit his job. His reception after his journey is equally disastrous: Not only is Aunt
Grace not happy to see him, she doesn't even seem to recognize him. ("I didn't think you'd be glad
to see me," he says. "No one ever is.")
In truth, she and Kemp have never been close. No photos of him or his family decorate her room. No
remembrance of her hasty, years-ago visits stirs her mind. Worse, Kemp has come not merely to
offer her temporary palliative care but hasten her end, believing he'll inherit her estate.
"You want to be cremated?" he asks. "We should discuss your organs." When she hangs on, giving
no indication she's about to kick the bucket, he rigs up a Rube Goldberg-like contraption to
electrocute her. Then he tries to poison her. Finally, seeing little hope, he decides to hang himself.
Nothing works.
During his months-long stay, he catalogues his transvestite childhood, manic-depressive father and
alcoholic mother who "destroyed every illusion I ever had." Meanwhile, inexorably, a bond grows
between Kemp and Grace, climaxing in a second-act surprise before descending into a sentimental
The evening might be stronger if cut and played as one long act. And the director might have found a
less annoying way to suggest time's passage than those irritating "blinks."
To his credit, director Stephen DiMenna doesn't let Kemp become a clown nor Grace a cliché. (The
actor who played Shakespeare's clowns was Will Kemp; the name Grace is self-evident.)
Timothy Busfield's Kemp is a gem. Pushing his palm against his forehead as if to ward off painful
memories, he rises to comic heights when nearly electrocuted by his death contraption. Busfield
walks a fine line between the character's self-deprecating humor and his miserable biography.
As the mostly silent Grace, the veteran Helen Stenborg digs into a gamut of facial expressions to
reflect her thoughts. With spot-on timing, she goes from mock horror to ironic detachment to weary
acceptance with stops along the way for a bit of kindness here, a dollop of concern there.
Ben Stanton's lighting isolates the room from the world while also suggesting life outside. Daniel
Baker's sound design and the Broken Chord Collective's music are amusing, while Ilona Somogyi's
costumes have touches of wit. Only Andromache Chalfant's set is a mistake, suggesting a
warehouse loft rather than a faded, decrepit house. More, it gives away the contraption gag by having
the machine in full view before Kemp has supposedly built it.
But "Vigil" works as an insightful look at loneliness and acceptance. Even better, it gets the
Playhouse season off to a racing start.
(This review appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, March 6, 2008)

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