Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Sept. 13, 2002
Vigil: Shining Through
Hyde Park Theatre,
through September 28
Running Time: 2 hrs
On the stage at Hyde Park Theatre, light shines through a window in a room as threadbare as a room can be. Wallpaper once adorned the walls, and remnants of it still cling there, but mostly you see the ribs of structure. Neglect has placed its stamp all over this room: the peeling paint; the overstuffed chair, out of which the stuffing leaks; and although the bed is nice enough, under it is a conspicuous pile of junk, shoes, clothes, what have you. No one has cared for this room, or anything in it, for many years. But still, whenever it's dark, a light shines through that lone window.
Grace lives in this room, and she is dying. This fact is clear from the first moment we see her limp, lifeless, thinning hair and drawn, haggard, washed-out face. In case we can't determine her state from looking at her, Kemp has arrived, and he serves to remind us of her impending demise. It seems that Grace wrote to Kemp, her only surviving relative, to let him know that she was dying and that she needed him to help her die, and Kemp quit his bank job and came, dutifully and immediately.
Morris Panych's script is an absolute gem, so much so that it almost leaves me speechless. In one sense, it's a character study. For two solid hours of stage time, Kemp speaks and Grace listens. What Kemp talks about is his life: being raised Catholic, his alcoholic mother, his nasty father, his conspicuous misanthropy, his nowhere job. He speaks often of Grace, who we don't discover is his aunt until late in the first act -- how he sent her a picture every year and wrote to her consistently for 30 years, although she didn't reply. In addition to being a character study, the script also is a rumination on death, its nature and our relationship to it. Given the title and given what we see in the first scene, when Kemp arrives seemingly unexpectedly, and Grace sits, terrified, in her bed, the bedclothes pulled up to her chin, death is in the room, and Panych uses death as a constant touchstone. But more than either of these, the play is about connection. Panych uses death to define the relationship between Kemp and Grace, and it's through the subject of death that these characters ultimately develop a deep relationship. Finally, and most surprisingly, the play is a mystery. From moment one, you know that something strange is happening here, but you don't know what. Panych provides plenty of clues, but when the revelation comes, it's as neat and surprising a twist as I've seen in any play.
What I'm afraid isn't coming across here is that, while being extremely perceptive and wise, Vigil also is very funny. Panych writes in short, blackout scenes, some no more than tableaux, and just before every blackout he provides Kemp with a line than puts a nail in the thematic coffin. For instance, at the end of one scene, Kemp says to Grace, "I don't want to talk about anything depressing," then pauses for a moment and says, "Do you want to be cremated?" Moments like this abound, and practically nothing in the production gets in the way of Panych's witty and ultimately profound script. Actor Ken Webster's Kemp is a portrait of nonchalant detachment, and he delivers two hours of text with ease, as if he's done it many times before (which he has). Lana Dieterich listens well as Grace, embodies the implications of her given name, and absolutely nails the few lines she has. Paul Davis' set totally supports the action, as does Robert S. Fisher's sound design, which provides a tremendous amount of appropriately evocative accordion music and creates a complete and present world outside Grace's isolated room. While director Peck Phillips could be faulted for allowing his actors to be a little too detached and sometimes to do more than is necessary, he allows Panych's script to shine like a light through a lonely window, a light we all could see, if only we would take the time.