Vigil opens with an old woman in a bed and a looming figure in the shadows of the doorway behind her. It looks like a true Halloween scenario — the big bad wolf approaching the helpless grandmother — and this impression isn't altogether off, because the intruder is indeed a predator. His name is Kemp, and he claims that he's the woman's nephew, here in response to a letter in which she said she was dying alone and needed help.
For the next hour and a half, Kemp will stride the stage, muttering about his dislike of the human race and his impatience to see the woman, Grace, hurry up and die. "Do you want to be cremated?" he asks her early on. And a bit later, when she's feeling festive and putting on makeup: "Why don't you let the mortician do that?" He whines about his miserable childhood, the parents who derided his penchant for dressing in girls' clothes, the mother who cared more for the family kitten than for him. He berates Grace endlessly. He brings her trays of food, rants at her to eat and then — as she stares at him in bewilderment — dashes the tray to the ground, cursing. He brings in a rope and, later, a contraption that looks like a scaffold. He hints that there's poison in the food. He seems to want her to kill herself, and if she won't, he implies that he'll do it. And, oh, yes, the play is a comedy — a very funny, if evil-hearted, comedy.
I first saw Vigil seven years ago, directed, as now, by Billie McBride and featuring the same cast: Lawrence Hecht as Kemp and Patty Mintz Figel as Grace. I loved the play then, and I still do. But this time it's at the Cherry Creek Theatre instead of the cozy, funky Bug, and it feels different. On the most obvious level, the change in setting changes the play's focus and intensity. The Cherry Creek Theatre is an amazing artifact, a solid and well-constructed playing area — raised stage, functional auditorium — put together in an hour or two for every performance by designer Richard Pegg in the gallery of the upscale Shaver-Ramsey Showroom, a place that sells rare, beautiful and very expensive carpets. The more open area makes the action less intense and Grace's predicament less claustrophobic. It also allows both actors more freedom of movement.
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Presented by Cherry Creek Theatre through October 27. Shaver Ramsey Showroom, 2414 Third Avenue. 303-800-6578, cherrycreektheatre.org.
I was seeing the character of Kemp a little differently, too. The man is a monster. Even when he reminisces about the way his absent aunt became a poignant symbol for him when he was a boy, how he longed for her to extract him from his abusive home and once even sent himself a birthday card and pretended it was from her, you don't feel any sympathy for him, and you're not supposed to. During the Bug performance, I had exulted in author Morris Panych's dark humor and marked lack of sentimentality and found Kemp somewhat congenial, if anything. On this second viewing, I still found him congenial — but now I was questioning why, hearing his loathsome remarks as if for the first time. Eventually, I realized it was because Hecht plays the role with such abandon and panache and makes the character so proud of his own sheer nastiness — that is, when Kemp even realizes he's being nasty. A big man, light on his feet and wearing a golden wig and prancing about in a short bathrobe, he looks like a Thurber cartoon come to life. And even though it's his voice you hear through almost the entire evening, neither he nor this smart, hilarious script ever bores.
By contrast, Grace contributes only a single syllable in the first act, a tiny, childlike gasp — "Oooooh" — and she doesn't speak a whole lot in the second. But silent though she is, Figel's Grace easily keeps pace with Hecht. You often find yourself watching her face. You note that she's frightened, slowly coming to understand the lie of the land, mildly amused and eventually calculating, even slyly playful — a cunning little mouse trapped with a rampaging elephant. The odd relationship that finally develops between these two people is like nothing you've seen on a stage before. It never softens into hugs, mutual emotional revelation or a big reconciliation scene, but quiet Auntie does come into her own and, as her name implies, conjure something very like grace from her strange situation.