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Saturday Spotlight: Kitchen Dog Delivers with a Flawed 'Vigils'
by Jerome Weeks 18 Sep 2009

Ira Steck and Tina Paker star in Vigils.

Noah Haidle’s Vigils is a memory play — with a comic vengeance. It’s a comedy powered by paralyzing grief, a moving (though a little messy) piece of laughter and loss. A fireman’s widow can’t let go of his memory. In this case, it’s a metaphor made actual: The fireman died trying to save a baby. But his wife is unable to live without him; she trapped his soul, yanked him by the foot as he tried to ascend to heaven — or wherever he was headed.

So now his Soul lives in a box in her apartment. It’s not a hellish existence; it’s pleasant enough. He talks to her about old times and gets hugs. Watches her as she goes on a date. It’s like limbo with benefits.

One of our first memory plays — one of the first American breaks with conventional stage realism — was Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. Memory mostly lends that play a sense of regret, plus a way for the narrator, Tom, to slide from scene to scene. But while Tom’s memories of his sister Laura torture him, they don’t disrupt his story’s chronology. It’s mostly a linear narrative — same as it ever was.

In Vigils, on the other hand, memory is interrupting and obsessive — as we all know it can be. The Widow (Tina Parker) keeps re-playing the death of her husband (Matthew Gray). Even as she gets ready for her first date, two years after his death, we see her husband lumber up the burning stairs once more, doomed to follow the baby’s cry.

None of this sounds very comical, yet it often is, darkly so. Partly, it’s the way the Widow’s memories interrupt her nervous first date with a firehouse buddy (Jim Kuenzer). Partly, it’s the old mind-body disconnect. The Soul cannot escape, but he can unwittingly conjure up the couple’s ridiculous moments from the past: arguments in bed, their first meeting, catching the husband singing in the shower. The Soul cannot see (he has no body), while the Body doesn’t understand why he’s trapped, doing the same damned things over and over. It’s as if the Widow’s emotional problems infect the process of the play itself. (Coincidentally, something of this same fractured, repetitive structure provides a similar mix of past and present, of comedy and apprehension, in the current film (500) Days of Summer, which is a delightful, bittersweet romantic comedy.)

Jim Kuenzer, Matthew Gray and Tina Parker share an awkward dinner.

The Widow deserves these embarrassing time shifts because it’s plain her bereavement is a form of selfishness, a self-indulgence. She hangs on desperately to her pain because it’s the only connection she has left with her husband. This way, she’ll never move on with her life, and he’ll never be gone. The “re-set” button on their lives keeps getting pushed.

Directed by Aaron Ginsburg, the Kitchen Dog production is smart and ingenious, blessed with a remarkable cast. Vigils is tricky to stage because it demands some hallucinatory and supernatural moments — like when the Soul (the appropriately spectral, soft-spoken Ira Steck) tries to escape the sleeping Widow. He climbs, mountaineering in zigzag fashion right up designer Craig Siebels’ set and Lara McMeley’s lighting. For its premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, the set was equipped overhead with a blue sky that could open up. Siebels manages a more down-to-earth but still highly effective solution. Vigils has several such startling, often comic moments when Haidle’s characters break through stage conventions and even break through the stage.

Which is the (minor) weakness here: Haidle does not seem to have absolute control of all these breaks and time shifts. They get a little repetitive. Other critics (see above) also don’t like the ending. I happened to enjoy it. The other possible, more obvious resolutions to this dilemma seem to me, well, more obvious. Haidle finds a different way out — naturally, it goes through a wall.

As the Widow, Parker comes on too strong at first, as if this might be another one of her “madwoman” roles. Yes, grief has gripped the Widow, but after two years, grief is rarely this angry, this vehement. You can’t keep up the energy drain. But Parker settles down, makes the Widow real and funny and neurotic. She pairs beautifully with Mathew Gray, who provides much of the warm heart of Vigils. Body is another of Gray’s uncommon-common man roles, roles he makes seem so affable and easy. Ditto Kuenzer as the appealing, hapless wooer. Kuenzer comes across like a kinder, gentler Tom Arnold — blessedly, a Tom Arnold without the manic self-destruction — so he conveys both a nice-guy niceness and a sense of urgency.

He pits his desire for the Widow, his desire to end his own loneliness — against her escape into emotional isolation, and her own buried desire to break out.

Vigils continues through Oct. 10; click here for the complete schedule.