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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Helen Stenborg and Malcolm Gets.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

With all the recent furor that's erupted in this country over universal health care, it's perhaps easier than it should be to see Canadian playwright Morris Panych's Vigil as a comment on it. Yet the new production at the DR2 Theatre, which originated at the Westport Country Playhouse a few months ago, seems to invite such avenues of thought, much to its detriment much of the time.

An old woman, named Grace (Helen Stenborg), who lives alone and rarely gets out of bed, is visited by a young man, Kemp (Malcolm Gets). He received her letter, he says, and has come to live with her until her imminent death. He's happy at first to feed her butterscotch pudding and help her with her will. But as the days stretch into weeks and the weeks into months, he becomes obsessed with speeding up the process for her. After all, he gave up his almost-prestigious job at an almost-prestigious bank to help her live out her last days - it's the least she could do.

It's all supposed to be charming and sweet, this asexual wannabe-invisible man learning to relate to the woman he's never known as his aunt. And perhaps there was a real atmosphere of innocent fun about this when the show premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1995. But as Kemp rigs up Rube Goldberg-inspired ways to give Grace electric shocks or conk her in the face with a frying pan, the words "death panels" all but flash in neon above Andromache Chalfant's cramped-homey apartment set. It doesn't help that Grace has literally two words in all the first act, and only a handful more after intermission - it really seems as if Panych is determined that Grace have no say in her fate, to say nothing of her life, and that the convenience of the young whippersnapper is truly laughworthy. If you don't have older, cherished relatives, perhaps you'll agree.

But the undercurrent of morbidity, especially as filtered through Stephen DiMenna's stiff-legged direction and Gets's utterly greasy and unlikeable first-act performance, makes it difficult to find amusement in the gentle torture Kemp inflicts on the almost entirely silent Grace. As it turns out, she has a good reason to keep her mouth shut, but you'll either need to wait until nearly the end of the second act to learn it, or else guess it on your own (it's not hard). If the second act is a noticeable improvement, with both the writing and Gets becoming more sensitive to their surroundings, it's not much more dynamic in terms of its sudden switch to maudlin sentimentality. The on-the-sleeve feelings it develops are more appropriate to a Lifetime movie of the week than a play that needs to balance its soft and its hard sides to keep an audience engaged without tear-stained close-ups.

At least Stenborg is a winner, finding just the right middle ground between emotional strength and physical fragility. She extracts all the comedy possible, in both physicality and facial expression, from lying in bed (Grace's most frequent activity), and she makes every one of her few words count. And when she comes into her own in Act II, it's a thoughtful transformation that floods the stage with some much-needed sunshine and, more important, a recognizable humanity. Her warmth only makes Gets's whiny and robotic nephew look even seamier - for the play to work, we must believe in Kemp's inherent, if deeply hidden, goodness. Otherwise, what's intended as comic just comes across as cruel.

That's the case with this Vigil, which redeems itself in its waning scenes - too late to feel heartwarming instead of just plain creepy. It's nice to see a show that ultimately is about the value of friendships between the young and the old, and that reminds of the real value to be found in everyone regardless of age. Hopefully those in Washington still debating our country's health care strategies will keep that firmly in mind. Whether Panych intended it or not, it's an inescapable destination for this production. Too bad that this time around getting there is considerably less than half the fun.

Through November 29
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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