Canadian scribe Morris Panych has written a funny play that makes you want to cry. An offbeat two-hander about two of the loneliest people alive, “Vigil” sets up the intriguing situation of a mercenary young man who quits his bank job to keep a deathwatch on a rich aunt he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Under Stephen DiMenna’s shrewd helming, Malcolm Gets and Helen Stenborg turn in sterling performances as this oddly matched pair, trapped in a macabre bond that’s comic on the surface, heartbreaking at the core. With judicious trimming, this little number could have ’em in stitches crying.
Opening scene is a grabber, with a disheveled Kemp (Gets) bursting in on Grace (Stenborg) as the poor old thing is asleep in her bed — a picture of vulnerability enhanced by the elaborate bedroom scene (quilts, pillows, faded prints, dusty books and all the other depressing clutter of a long lifetime) assembled by designer Andromache Chalfant.
In a series of brief blackout scenes, the chatterbox intruder announces himself as Grace’s nephew, called to her deathbed by her own letter. Now that he’s gone through the trouble of answering her summons, he would like to get it over with and collect his inheritance.
“Let’s not talk about anything depressing,” Kemp says, as he prepares to settle into her home. (pause) “Do you want to be cremated?” Thanks to Gets’ deliciously savored — and judiciously timed — line reading, the initial menace of the situation immediately dissolves into ludicrous comedy.
Panych employs this reversal technique many times over in the first dozen scenes of Kemp’s hilariously lugubrious monologue — with Gets gracefully swiveling from scary menace (“We should discuss your organs”) to pathetic creep (“All right. Fine. You don’t have to like me”).
The horrid family history for which Kemp holds his aunt partly responsible (“And where were you, by the way?”) is far from cliche-free. Surely we’ve all heard the one about the sensitive little boy who suffered from his parents’ neglect (“I had to fill my own Christmas stocking”) and comforted himself by dressing up as a girl. Between Mom’s dedicated drinking and Dad’s decision to shoot himself with the gun she gave him as a gift, it’s no wonder the poor lad developed a fixation on the glamorous aunt who visited for one day and filled his head with fantasies.
Although she hasn’t said a word throughout much of the monologue (memorably finding her voice on Christmas Eve), Grace comes to see Kemp as clearly as we do. And as the months go by and summer comes, we find her putting on lipstick and blossoming in the glow of his company, depressing though it may be.
That’s a killer of an acting challenge, keeping one’s mouth shut, and Stenborg (a Broadway veteran with formidable credits) is entirely up to it. With her powder-white hair, delicate bones and little round eyes, she looks like an alert and rather large bird that has somehow learned how to knit. But there are subtle changes in her expression as she learns to care for Kemp, and when Grace finally finds her voice, thesp earns a gasp from the audience that’s only a whisper away from an outright sob.