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Theater Review-Vigil: Unexpected Turns Make This Dark Comedy Work



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Theater Review—

Vigil: Unexpected Turns Make This Dark Comedy Work

By Julie Stern

WESTPORT — Morris Panych and George F. Walker are both highly successful Canadian playwrights of about the same age, whose dark comedies feature meticulously detailed, highly realistic sets that evoke a sense of sadness and squalor, while their offbeat and sometimes grotesque characters keep the audience laughing even as the plot veers off in a disturbing direction.

Yale Rep has staged two Walker plays in the last decade. Now Westport Country Playhouse is giving audiences a chance to see one by Panych, in the form of Vigil, in which a middle aged nerd returns after thirty years, to sit with his dying aunt.

Personally I prefer Walker, but the audience certainly seemed to enjoy this production.

Remarkably insensitive, and utterly lacking in social skills, the self-obsessed Kemp has come in response to a letter from his only living relative. She is dying, and would like to see him before she goes.

Kemp is by turns awkward, rude and obnoxious, but he is all Grace has. She lies speechless in her bed, her mobile face radiating confusion, alarm, and indignation as he prances about the room, discussing her burial plans as he waits, impatiently, for her to kick the bucket.

But Grace doesn’t die. Instead, Andromache Chalfant’s inspired scenic design and Ben Stanton’s masterful lighting combine to convey the changing seasons. As Kemp glares out the dirty window, snow gives way to spring, to summer heat, and back to Christmas again, we realize two years are passing.

Kemp’s dramatic monologues give us some insight into how his dreadful parents were responsible for his own creepiness, while his bizarre (but unsuccessful) attempts to speed up Grace’s demise draw a lot of laughs.

What I didn’t like (and perhaps I was the only one bothered by it) was the sound design, with original music by Broken Chord Collective, in which the passage of time was marked by  loud, bursts of dissonant piano and string  music, every three or four minutes. Doing this twice or three times might have been dramatically effective, but for me, anticipating each next jolt became a bit like  Chinese water torture.

That complaint aside, the plot does take a couple of highly unexpected turns, and by the end, the play grapples with issues that have serious import. Timothy Busfield was excellent as Kemp, while Helen Stenborg made grown men giggle as the  wide-eyed old woman suffering his not-so-tender ministrations.

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