The irritated, exacerbated, unpleasant, loud, brash, inelegant, scornful Kemp is played by Timothy Busfield. I wanted to see Vigil since Busfield has been excellent in television's thirtysomething, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. His stage presence, timing, mastery of gesture and understanding of the dyspeptic yet complex character, Kemp, are most impressive.
Kemp barrages Grace, played by Helen Stenborg, who is the epitome of the poised and seasoned actress, with commentary relative to the state of her life, his mediocrity, and pronouncements concerning existence itself. She is required to remain silent for nearly the entire first act which lasts about an hour. She moves around a bit in her brass bed and playfully scurries out of it only when Kemp is temporarily beyond sight. Stenborg's eyes and facial reactions, however, represent her responses.
Vigil had its premiere in 1995 and its author, Morris Panych, has directed this work many times. Last year, he assumed the role of Kemp at a Vancouver Playhouse production. To be certain, he has created two eccentric and atypical characters, each of whom is ultimately and, in Kemp's case surprisingly, compassionate.
Kemp is a banker whose occupation has taken him nowhere. He is alienated from his parents and hasn't seen Grace (we learn well into the proceedings that he believes he is her nephew) in decades. He doesn't like her and arrives with an empty green suitcase upon which he occasionally sits.
Grace and her apartment have seen better days. Designer Andromache Chalfant presents a large space, with high ceilings, smeared windows, brittle newspapers in stacks, inadequate furnishings. The Broken Chord Collective provides original music which helps establish atmosphere. Relying upon string instruments, Broken Chord brings atonal, plaintive strains.
Stephen DiMenna's direction is essential since Busfield's Kemp is sometimes in motion. He walks, for example, from Grace's bed to cabinets beneath a set of windows and then to the apartment door. Grace and Kemp seem to be speaking with one another even as he, quite literally, does almost all of the actual talking. DiMenna helps with Kemp's navigation. The physical movement adds dimension beyond the literal script.
To their credit, these actors are never hurried, even when their exchange is staccato, crisp and lively. Kemp, for much of the time, is completely self-centered, while Grace, who continues for a year or so in her terminal condition, is not. She develops a quick affection for the new presence in her life and obviously looks forward to his visits.
Vigil is a play about inevitable death, but during its two hour running time, life, instead, dominates. Kemp is far from an appealing character. Obviously alienated from everything and everybody, he is bitter about his prospects. For all we know, he never had a single complimentary word for anyone. Grace, however, gets to him. It is not a stretch, then, to feel that playwright Panych, scripting words about her demise, values each precious moment of her life.
The play is not heavy handed but filled with wry humor. Many theatergoers will laugh aloud while watching this perceptive, ironic Vigil.
Vigil continues at The Westport Country Playhouse through March 15th. For ticket information, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.
- Fred Sokol