`Vigil' is trying for wild, wacky potential it hides

Review: Everyman comedy earns a tip of the hat for costuming, but script milks its lone joke dry.

March 09, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Morris Panych's Vigil essentially is one extremely extended joke. The punch line comes about halfway into the second act.

It's a pretty good joke - one that'll probably take you completely by surprise. But it's hardly enough to sustain a full-length play, especially one plagued with plot holes. Nor does it help that instead of playing up the show's wild-and-wacky elements, director Vincent Lancisi's production at Everyman Theatre emphasizes the comedy's sentimental, well-meaning side.

Structured as a series of short scenes, the play focuses on a middle-aged man named Kemp who travels 1,000 miles to be at the deathbed of an elderly aunt he hasn't seen for 30 years. Not sure she'll even be alive when he gets there, he finds her bedridden, but suffering from no apparent affliction - except that she rarely speaks. (Her near-muteness, which never is explained, is the script's chief plot hole.)

Although misanthropic Kemp makes it unmistakably clear that he's eager for her to die, his presence appears to be a boon to her health. Days pass, then weeks, then months.

All of the action takes place in the woman's attic bedroom, lovingly realized in designer Dan Conway's set, which features faded floral wallpaper, sloping ceilings and a pot-bellied stove. Hanging on one wall are two prints of Keane-style, big-eyed children.

The eyes of the children in the pictures, however, are no bigger than those of actress Diana Sowle as she silently reacts to Kemp's repeated urgings that her character, Grace, get on with it already and expire. Sowle - who also played this role in a production in Washington last season - stares in shocked disbelief as Kemp asks whether she wants to be cremated, what he should wear to the funeral, if she wants to donate her organs, etc.

Because the conversation is almost completely one-sided and Kemp is far from shy, we also learn a great deal about him and his bizarre upbringing - his manic-depressive, failed magician father; his alcoholic mother, who tried to turn him into a homosexual; his self-flagellating flirtation with Catholicism.

Everything about Kemp cries out for a quirky performance, with the possible exception of the drab bank clerk's job he left to care for his aunt. Still, R. Scott Williams needs to show more of his character's eccentricities, instead of merely telling us about them.

Instead of zany performances, the most outlandish element of Everyman's production is its millinery. Not only are the walls of Conway's set decorated with vintage hats, but costume designer Melissa Webb has created some real doozies to signify various holidays. For example, on Halloween, Grace wears an elaborate witch's hat, and best of all, on Christmas, she dons a large elf's cap festooned with working lights, and topped with a miniature Santa in a sleigh.

The trouble is, the hats are ultimately more amusing than the play. Panych, a Canadian playwright rarely produced in this country, milks his one joke and Kemp's nasty cynicism for far more than they're worth. And that leaves the audience lots of time to contemplate unanswered questions, from large (Grace's silence) to small (why Kemp finds it necessary to hang his laundry in Grace's bedroom).

In the end, there is a purpose to Panych's gallows humor. His play is a commentary on the need to conquer loneliness by reaching out to each other. Kemp's change of heart on this is rather abrupt, however, making the sweet ending seem more manipulative than earned.

Vigil was a last-minute substitution in Everyman's schedule, and Lancisi, who also is the theater's artistic director, has made the point that it's been a while since the theater produced a comedy.

Though comedy can be harder to stage than tragedy, in this case the production is less the problem than the play. Any way you dress it up - loony hats and all - this is simply a weak script. Well below the usual high standards of this fine theater, it's a vigil scarcely worth keeping.

Vigil

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 7

Tickets: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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