Read It and Weep

Watching television with Isabelle, my crinkly-haired, adventurous, lemon-curd-loving Belgian anthropologist friend, was always a hoot. I'd explain to her the inexorable rules of U.S. television drama: No, House hasn't arrived at the correct diagnosis because it's 8:30 p.m., and that only happens at seven minutes to 9. She delighted in counting the number of times someone on the screen -- whether in a sitcom, reality show, interview or drama -- began to cry. The formidable Nanny Deb in Fox's Nanny 911, for example. We loved watching Nanny Deb march into an unruly household and set it straight, lecturing the parents, providing loving boundaries for the children, doing her victorious little Nanny Dance whenever a toddler had successfully used the potty. But the tearfest with which every episode ended filled us with derisive glee. Nanny Deb's nose would redden and her eyes begin to run; she'd sniff. One after another, chastened parents and little-monsters-turned-angels would mirror her. "What is it with Americans?" Isabelle would say. "Why do they love tears so much?"

My mean old critic's heart shrinks whenever I see the words "heartwarming" or "poignant" used to describe a comedy. I don't want my heart warmed. I don't like sentimental. I like black, ironic, savage. I like unsuitable, and I love inappropriate. I delight in being shocked. And I was happy -- so very happy -- watching Modern Muse's Vigil, a brilliantly written play by Morris Panych in which a strange, disoriented, misogynistic and clearly half-mad middle-aged man named Kemp shows up at the bedside of his dying auntie, apparently summoned by a letter from her. He then proceeds to take care of her -- that is, prepare meals and rant while she tries to eat them; maunder on about the miseries of the world in general and his life in particular; share his jaundiced worldview, in which the children playing outside the window are "little, insane, drunken midgets"; ask whether she wants to be cremated and if she's thought about donating her organs ("I could do your autopsy if you like. Get to know you a little better"); and suggest that she hurry up and die because he really has better things to do than hang around with her.

Oh, this is one nasty man, played with plummy, lip-smacking relish by Lawrence Hecht. He moans and hums and mutters and whines in his sleep. He wanders the stage humming Gilbert and Sullivan, wearing a blond wig and one of his auntie's robes. There's a touch of playwright Alan Bennett in his monologues, in the precision and superficial ordinariness of the language and the spiritual emptiness beneath, as well as in Kemp's status as an outsider, an observer, never able to participate in life. But there's none of Bennett's essential good-heartedness here. Or so we think.

And while all of this is going on, what of Auntie Grace? The evening's second masterful performance comes from Patty Mintz Figel, who doesn't speak at all until halfway through, when her first words -- directed to an accidentally electrocuted and reeling Kemp -- are "Merry Christmas," and who doesn't talk a whole lot even after that. Auntie appears to be terrified at the play's beginning, though she does display a bit of spunk. Then fear modulates into curiosity, and she remains remarkably unperturbed as Kemp explains his plans for her demise. Periodically, when he is out of the room, she gets out of bed for one reason or another and scuttles about the stage like a sly little mouse. She holds her own, silent Auntie does -- which takes both talent and technique on Figel's part.

Vigil, which is well directed by Billie McBride, is more tightly plotted than you realize at first, unfolding in a series of scenes bracketed by blackouts. Most of the scenes are brief, some last no more than a few seconds, a few are silent. Many end on lines so outrageous that you gasp before erupting into laughter as the lights dim.

I was having a delicious time watching all of this, but I was wary. The program included the words "poignantly tender." Uh-oh. Just in terms of structure, I knew there had to be a resolution to the drama, and I suspected it would take the form of a reconciliation. I had also noticed some insights about loneliness and mortality bleeding through the wonderfully satiric lines. I worried. Would there be hugging? Self-realization? Would Kemp repent? Would Auntie heal his damaged mind? Please, no.

I'll tell you this much. Although redemption is too strong a word, there's a showing of some sort. A hopeful stasis. Something like the faintest whisper of green shoots floating over cindery soil. Something that raises thoughts about the persistence of humanity in the unlikeliest mind and the irrepressible need for connection. Yes, I'm afraid this critic's beady eyes were wet by the end of Vigil. There's only one weekend left, and you must see it. If you find yourself weeping a little, I'll understand. And so, I'm sure, would Isabelle.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman