Actor's perfect timing keeps `Vigil' morose yet humorous

By Michael Barnes
AMERICAN-STATESMAN ARTS CRITIC
Monday, September 9, 2002

Grace sits silently -- a quizzical expression on her face -- in a room dripping with tattered wallpaper. A window opens onto a bleak wall intersected by a leafless vine.

A dark-suited man with an ominous suitcase appears at the foot of her bed. A long-absent relation, not young, but not yet old, Kemp makes arrangements for the elderly woman's passing. He fusses about wills, memorials and final rites, while carelessly feeding the old woman noodles and butterscotch pudding.

The seasons pass. Exasperation with Grace's inexplicable good health turns Kemp's thoughts to felony. Yet his attempts to hurry nature reveal a lovable ineptness and a pathological mind resolutely divided against itself.

Clearly, the odd couple in Morris Panych's "Vigil" are doomed to loony morbidness, at least until a curious interdependency develops between them. Told in shotgun-like bursts, this comic story takes several unexpected side trips before settling on a satisfactory -- and humane -- conclusion.

Director Peck Phillips stages an impeccable premiere of "Vigil" at Hyde Park Theatre. He expertly arranges each punch line and blackout while fighting against the script's inevitable jerkiness. Paul Davis provides a knock-dead set of stylized decay and bleakness, while lighting designer Bradley Carlin indicates the passing of time with deftness.

Sound designer Robert S. Fisher fixes undertones of whimsy and bittersweetness with accordion music and French vocal recordings -- along with tiny auditory hints of the world outside the death chamber.

Everything in "Vigil" depends on the rightness of the actors playing the unlikely twosome. Speaking almost all the lines, Ken Webster earns the flashier role as Kemp. Webster rightly abbreviates Kemp's behavior, suppressing his natural dramatic flair until well into Act 2. The humor depends explicitly on his matter-of-fact manner, while the final emotional payoff relies on his slowly unfurled feelings for Grace.

Still, Grace is the more difficult role, since virtually all her reactions are mute. Lana Dieterich preternaturally provides just the right expression for each situation, never overreacting with horror, never forcing a sweet look. The performance is among this veteran Austin actor's finest.

Two tiny things inhibit complete enjoyment of this show. The ultra-short scenes, defined by quick blackouts, almost force the audience to respond vocally, as their ancestors might have reacted to melodramas or silent films. There's nothing wrong with this sort of willing audience participation, but it sometimes upsets the delicate workmanship in the writing.

Also, spill light from the technical control booth not only robs the stage of a full blackness during scene changes but also directs attention to the lighted members of the audience.

Nevertheless, this is a virtually airtight comedy. Coming so soon after the pitch-perfect "Marion Bridge," the equally well-composed "Vigil" confirms that Hyde Park Theatre is on one heck of a roll.