The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, October 1, 2010, Arts


Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd, 479-7529

Through Oct. 9

Running time: 2 hr.

Some plays are worth a few chuckles. Then there are plays that are funny to the point of being medicinal. Hyde Park Theatre's revival of its production of Vigil is so funny that though the whole play may revolve around death, after laughing for almost the entire two hours, you leave feeling healthier than when you walked in.

Kemp (Ken Webster) has arrived quickly, at the behest of his ailing aunt, to hold vigil at her bedside until she passes away. He is her only living relative. Grace (Lana Dieterich) can hardly be blamed for her apprehension; among other details to be revealed later, Kemp is an anti-social, difficult type who makes no bones about becoming impatient as his vigil stretches into weeks, months, and finally a whole year. As time passes, his impatience grows – but so does the affection between these two lonely people. Kemp struggles between wanting an end and caring deeply for the old woman in spite of himself. "I'm concerned about your health," he says. "It appears to be improving."

The beauty of Morris Panych's script is how wonderful and fulfilling an experience it truly is to watch a play set in the dingy, sparse apartment of an old, dying woman with an unpleasant nephew keeping watch. If there is a criticism to be made, it's that the play could have ended in about three different places, but it keeps going for just a few more scenes. Having said that, the dark comedy of the situation and the excellent passages in which Kemp talks, talks, talks – to keep himself company as much as anything else – make for an endearing and delightful evening.

Hyde Park Artistic Director Webster casts himself in a lot of the company's shows. That could be seen as an act of pure ego, except for the fact that he does such a good job in them. Webster excels at the part of the neurotic misanthrope, and in Vigil he gives one of his strongest performances yet. His unsentimental, earnest deadpan as he discusses funeral arrangements with the dying woman is delightful.

The other half of the cast, Dieterich, pulls off a great performance in a role that has very few lines. The memorizing work may have been quick, but the part itself is plenty challenging. Like Kemp, Grace transforms as Kemp's visit grows longer and longer. Dieterich proves that Webster's casting decisions are again spot-on; her long nonverbal stretches are charming and genuine.

In a play about a vigil for a dying woman, you might expect there to be only one sort of ending possible. In fact, there is a twist, and a pretty awesome one at that. Go, laugh, be surprised, and find yourself improbably healed by laughter as you keep watch at the end of a life.

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