Malcolm Gets and Helen Stenborg in Vigil
(© Carol Rosegg)
Malcolm Gets and Helen Stenborg in Vigil
(© Carol Rosegg)
There are few reunions in contemporary theater as morbidly comic as the one between elderly aunt Grace (Helen Stenborg) and her middle-aged nephew Kemp (Malcolm Gets) in Morris Panych's Vigil, currently getting a belated New York premiere production at the DR2 Theater. Under Stephen DiMenna's uneven direction, the play's comedy often registers as more morbid than morbidly funny. Nonetheless the heart of the play beats through.

As the play opens, Grace and Kemp haven't had contact in 30 years -- unless you count his annual unanswered letters -- when he's summoned to her neglected apartment to sit vigil at her deathbed. But instead of dying as expected, she hangs on, and on -- through weeks, months, even changes of season. Her iron will to survive doesn't exactly agree with his selfish impatience. "I'm concerned about your health" he deadpans to her. "It seems to be improving."

The playwright has given the pair a unique dynamic -- and given the play a suspenseful tension -- by keeping Grace almost totally silent as Kemp holds forth with gross selfishness. One of the play's richest ironies is that while Grace is the one mostly confined to bed and rarely making a sound, she's more of a life force than Kemp, whose bitter callousness makes it seem that he's already dead inside.

Panych sets the darkly comic tone with a series of short staccato scenes in the first act, most of which end with one of Kemp's poisonous remarks before blackout. In this production, it's disappointing that the series of short scenes haven't been shaped to gain momentum; each plays at the same level rather than raising the stakes incrementally.

If the production is not always successful at maintaining the tone for the play's pitch black comedy, it succeeds at the larger job of credibly depicting the relationship between the two characters. Both Gets and Stenborg give performances that connect to the characters' humanity; even in the play's most grotesque moments, we see the loneliness that drives Grace and Kemp.

Without benefit of dialogue, Stenborg is able to vividly render her character's essential patience and compassion. Gets, whose almost constant dialogue drives the show, lets us glimpse the wounds beneath Kemp's torrent of words at all times, making Kemp a fully fleshed out character rather than a caricature. This pays off poignantly in the play's final scene when Grace and Kemp have to face each other with more honesty than before. Vigil may begin by playing with our discomfort about aging and death, but it ends by reminding us of the potential to renew life.