Vigil at Pillsbury House Theatre

A man's plans are thwarted by his aunt's refusal to die

At some point, we've all felt the need to get out of a rut (or a dire crevasse, as the case may be). Circumstances constrict, and all we can think about is the nearest exit. For the principal character in Pillsbury House's uneven production of Vigil, the prospects of escape turn out to be all stick with nary a taste of carrot.

The play's opening moment features Kemp (Steve Hendrickson) arriving, suitcase in hand, at the home of his bedridden elderly aunt Grace (Shirley Venard). Kemp has been summoned via a letter from Grace informing him that she's near death and needs a family member to tend to the details of her passing. Since we quickly learn that the two haven't communicated in 30 years, we also infer that this is not a family distinguished by warm and fuzzy closeness.

And indeed, what follows confirms that impression. Grace deigns not to speak, leaving Venard to rely on a range of reactions (disapproval, withdrawal, queasy surprise) as Kemp unfurls his life and circumstances in a series of embittered monologues. Turns out Kemp's primary achievement on earth is an unbroken run of misanthropy and social ineptness, a hollow, arm's-length life of loneliness leavened only by his unsatisfying and empty job at a bank.

Ready for the big sleep: Steve Hendrickson, Shirley Venard
Michal Daniel
Ready for the big sleep: Steve Hendrickson, Shirley Venard


at Pillsbury House Theatre
through October 17

Now Grace is to be his ticket to something—early on he has her sign her estate over to him—but the joke's on Kemp. Grace not only doesn't kick the bucket on schedule (Hendrickson earns twisted laughs when his character blithely comments on Grace's lack of urgency in transitioning to the great beyond) but actually seems to gather strength. The silent old bat lies in bed, slurps down pudding, and even sneaks the occasional cigarette when her nephew isn't looking. The Grim Reaper is clearly focusing his attention elsewhere.

Playwright Morris Panych is playing fast and loose here with social isolation, estrangement, and the slow-burn tumble through time of families steeped in their own lack of connection and colossal futility (Kemp complains, convincingly, about his childhood, in which he was severely miscast, with parents who managed to completely misunderstand him while wallowing in their own misery). And Kemp poignantly tells of once wishing Grace would take him away from it all, into a realm of fabulousness and glamour that symbolized everything missing in his existence well into adulthood.

But something here isn't clicking. Hendrickson delivers Kemp's multiple strychnine soliloquies with sonorous poetry (the guy can deliver a line with as much import and complexity as anyone around), but it feels as though this isn't what best serves the play. Kemp is meant to be horrible, repellent, self-serving, and cribbed in a manner that repels and gradually interests us. Hendrickson, instead, has simply dialed down a couple of notches on his usual onstage charm, and it isn't enough.

What's really missing is a sense of palpable danger. Kemp's horrid journey to bury his boyhood dreams (involving considerable sexual ambiguity) should come with an awareness of the consequences of this particular internment. This slides by in a series of scene-ending laugh lines about wishing Grace dead: We know Kemp wants her to draw her last breath, but we never get a palpable sense of what, in Kemp, would die in the process. Should we place a bet, the blame would go to Hendrickson for not locating a strategy that lies outside his usual (seemingly) easy, compelling charisma.

This is by no means a bad show, and by the time Venard and Hendrickson are actually exchanging lines (after, incidentally, Panych pulls the rug out from everything that came before), it's no stretch to feel the tidal pull that led Kemp to try to extract some fragment of decency from himself. We're nearly there, but not close enough.