Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Several terms come to mind in describing “Vigil,” the two-character Canadian piece now at the Westport Country Playhouse. “Quirky, “dark comedy,” “outrageous,” and “theater of the absurd” are helpful in attempting to assign a genre. Canadian playwright Morris Panych, with a decided flair for the offbeat, appears to be a direct descendent of Samuel Beckett.
But does the piece succeed? “Vigil” works on one level, fails on another level. Whatever the failures, they cannot be attributed to its two top-level performers—Timothy Busfield and Helen Stenborg. Nor can one blame the script itself. It is the production which falters.
As to the story, a middle-aged man (Kemp) arrives at the bedside of his dying aunt (Grace), a woman he has not seen in thirty years. He launches into a discussion of funeral plans, presents a will to be signed (naming him legatee), and impatiently tries to hurry her demise. At the same time, he laments his early childhood, accusing her (and his parents) of cruelty and neglect. He spins a weird tale, perhaps more fantasy than reality. She, on her part, looks puzzled, pleased, surprised, as he rattles on in what is essentially a monologue. Her only words, which occur at the close of Act I, are “Merry Christmas.” Time passes, offering a series of shocking surprises. (Shocking indeed, as attempted electrocutions almost succeed.)
Under Stephen DiMenna’s direction, the story moves through a series of quick snap-shot scenes, meant to indicate the passage of time. Alas, that passage is all too slow, dulling the shock effects. Is there a better, quicker way to indicate time’s passing?
Also disappointing is Andromache Chalfant’s set design. The play is set in Grace’s apartment, but one gets the sense of an abandoned warehouse—huge and neglected. What is this all about? Granted that the broad stage of the Playhouse presents its problems, but this is hardly the solution.
Yet the actors’ performances are admirable. Stenborg, who has very few spoken lines, manages it all through innumerable facial expressions, and Busfield’s ongoing monologue is delivered with brio.
The story itself ultimately proves to be thought-provoking, raising the universal questions. How does one care for the elderly? How do we deal with the dying? How do human beings connect? And the familiar questions, this time around, are offered in a novel package.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Mar. 3, 2008