Today’s news is fantastic if not surprising. Ken Webster has done it again—he’s selected an outstanding show to put on at the Hyde Park Theatre and executed another flawless production. I have a hunch that at least one or two cynics out there might suspect I’m on Webster’s payroll, the way I consistently gush about his taste in plays, his directing and his astonishing acting. And while we do share a friendship and I have used the HPT for my own productions, let me fast dispense with any suspicion you doubting Thomases might harbor. The reason I continue to happily, eagerly agree to review the shows is that Webster’s vision is wonderful. His passion for deep dark comedies is one I share. And the show that just opened, Vigil, is so saturated with gallows humor that I can hardly figure out where to begin to heap on the praise.
I found myself scribbling down line after line, wanting to share the wealth of bon mots in my review. But now, here I sit, remembering my pledge to never even think about crossing over to the spoiler side of the street. And so, yet again, I purposefully bring you vague commentary. Yes, that’s right, once again it’s time for one of those Just Trust Me It’s Brilliant moments. Really, you should see Vigil, and you should see it tonight.
There are some things I can share. Let’s begin with the first thing that greets you when the house opens: Paul Davis’s incredible set design. Davis has delivered more than a few authentic settings for HPT and this holds true yet again. We’re in the bedroom of a laconic elderly woman who has, to put it mildly, let things go. Wallpaper peels, magazines are scattered, and there’s an old chair in the corner that, like the woman, has seen better days but remains comfortable and of use. Davis never misses a detail. Witness the woman’s bed, which is missing one roller, its forth corner propped up on stacked bits of wood. It’s an easy enough thing to miss, and I almost did. But when I spotted that little stack, my heart sang—I am such a fan of tiny flourishes that speak volumes.
And now, just a hint about Morris Panych’s script. Vigil features only two players—Kemp (played by Webster) and Grace (Lana Dieterich)-- and the latter speaks only, if I counted correctly, 59 words. This leaves the heavy verbal lifting to Webster’s Kemp, a character who, by comparison, makes run-of-the-mill curmudgeons seem like Pollyanna. There’s little Kemp doesn’t complain about but so hilarious is his misanthropic view of the world (and in particular anything having to do with Christmas) that you have to laugh. I actually snorted more than once thanks to Kemp’s running negative commentary and, of course, the spectacular energy with which Webster infuses the role.
As for Dietrich-as-Grace. If you happen to be seeking proof that a mostly silent performance can be just as powerful as one saturated with words, here’s your chance. The physicality Dietrich brings to the role, this despite the fact she spends at least 85% of the show in bed, surely deserves an award. Her face is so expressive, so readily conveys so much, that it lends the perfect counterbalance to Kemp’s ongoing rants.
Though the play is packed with brilliant one-liners, it escapes being a mere vehicle for Panych’s comic finesse. There’s real substance here, not just punch lines. Act 2, in particular, is extremely muscular, and as the show moves toward a surprising ending we discover the writer’s ability to explore compassion without ever falling into the hole of cloying sweetness or moralistic preaching.
All this and there’s more—a touch of Wallace and Gromit, a nod to Rube Goldberg, and some over the top biting commentary on the trouble with children. In the end, I found myself reminded of one of my favorite poems of all time, Keeping Things Whole by Mark Strand. In particular, these lines came to me:
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
And you, my friend, will be missing something if you don’t get your ass to this show. Five hundred thumbs up. Way up.
Vigil runs at 8:00 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, September 9 - October 9. Every Thursday is Pay What You Can Night; Friday and Saturday tickets are $19 ($17 for students, seniors, and ACOT members). Hyde Park Theatre is located at 511 W. 43rd Street. For reservations call 479-PLAY (7529) or purchase tickets online.