Playwright Noah Haidle (“Mr. Marmalade”) continues his string of imaginative parables with “Vigils,” a simple, sweet exploration of human memory and grief. Directed with sensitive flair by Kate Whoriskey in its premiere at Chi’s Goodman Theater, the likable but slight show emanates plenty of whimsical melancholy and warm-heartedness, even if it never deepens in tone or substance into something more forceful. It’s a vanilla ice cream cone of a play, pleasing and predictable, with some colorful, stylized sprinkles on top.
Haidle is very much a conceiver of fanciful conceits. In “Vigils,” a Widow (Johanna Day) has been trying to cope with the death of her husband, a fireman who died two years earlier while trying to save a baby. Since then, she has locked up her husband’s Soul (Marc Grapey) in a trunk at the foot of her bed, and kept herself sedated with memories of his Body (Steve Key).
The Widow knows she should let the Soul go, but she can’t. The Soul, who tries as often as possible to escape, wants the Widow to move on, but also can’t help experiencing jealousy as she begins to date another fireman. The latter is an ultra-nice Wooer (Coburn Goss), who is firmly aware of the Soul’s corporeal presence: “Can we talk about this not right in front of your husband’s Soul?” he asks early on. “It’s weirding me out.”
Haidle displays plenty of gentle humor, and also capable craft, as he fills in a bit of backstory and contemplates the way memories don’t always reside within the control of those who remember them. The characters relive key episodes — their first dance in high school, the day she had a miscarriage, the last fight the morning before the fateful fire, the fire itself. The sequences reappear, told from different perspectives perhaps, or with alternative possibilities imagined.
The play becomes something of a tone poem, less interested in plot — after all, this story can only move toward one, extremely transparent ending — and more in evoking its core sentiment of sympathetic bittersweetness.
In that, it succeeds. Whoriskey capably brings all the performances into the same stylistic universe. Day makes the Widow determined but delicate, vulnerable but not too saccharine. Grapey is charmingly frumpy as the Soul, while Key, who bears no physical resemblance to his alter ego, delivers an archetypal guy’s guy, but with enough sensitivity to know his wife’s favorite flower. Goss’ Wooer, awkward but honest, has “loving second husband” written all over him.
The cracking walls of Walt Spangler’s set smartly reflect the fragility of human life in this sorrowful but humorous take on mortality. It also keeps a claustrophobic reality close at hand while embracing the feel of a comicbook, a world it fully leaps into at one point with the use of projections.
While it fundamentally works, however, the play is so on-the-nose that it rarely surprises. Taking on deep topics does not necessarily create a deep play, and “Vigils” seems content to raise big issues without exploring them. Soul, for example, wonders whether and how he’ll be judged for what he’s done in life, but Haidle doesn’t dig much further than converting it into a punch-line. “I was a terrible lover,” says the character, who suffered from premature ejaculation. “True,” says his Widow, bluntly. “But you can’t go to hell for that.”
“Vigils,” which doesn’t have nearly the edge of Haidle’s “Mr. Marmalade,” possesses enough appeal to play well at the regional level. But it’s tough to imagine how it would fare in the more demanding New York market. It’s impossible to avoid thinking of Sept. 11 when watching a play about grieving a fireman’s death. But the work’s limited scope — the Widow is dealing with a personal loss, but not really a shattering of her world view or sense of security — could make it feel almost trifling the closer it gets to Ground Zero.
Still, “Vigils” continues to establish Haidle, in his late 20s, as a playwright to watch. He brings a fundamentally theatrical imagination, and he’s obviously prolific: He’s quickly becoming a regional regular. With perhaps a few more of the hard knocks that life inevitably delivers, he could well find the means to deepen his work without sacrificing its charm.