A "Vigil" for a Woman Who Isn't Dying

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 3, 2011

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Bedside manners: Kemp (Leonard C. Haas, left) comes home to take care of his ailing aunt (Ceal Phelan).

Concocted by Canada’s hottest playwright, Morris Panych, Lantern Theater Company’s Vigil is the rare play that seems to be one thing and turns out to be something entirely different.

The story takes place in the bedroom of an elderly woman named Grace (Ceal Phelan), who is visited one day by a middle-aged fellow named Kemp (Leonard C. Haas). “I don’t expect you would be pleased to see me,” Kemp says upon his arrival. “Hardly anyone is.”

Kemp had left his job at a bank and rushed to his aunt’s bedside after receiving a letter from her indicating that she was dying (actually, he thinks the letter said dying, but apparently his aunt’s penmanship is rather indeterminate and she may have indicated that she was “yodeling.”) Either way, he discovers Grace bedridden in her home (the program identifies the setting as a rowhouse in Manayunk), which seems as good as proof as any that she is indeed on her death bed. Being a dutiful nephew, he feeds her butterscotch pudding and begins to make arrangements for her death. He practices delivering her eulogy and stages a dress rehearsal of the funeral while she watches from her bed. Most of the time, however, he just waits. And waits. And waits some more. Days turn into weeks and weeks into months and Grace lives on. “I’ve been concerned about your health these past few days.” “It seems to be improving” says an exasperated Kemp. Not having much of a bedside manner, he adds, “If you don’t die soon I think it’s going to kill me.” 

During Kemp’s vigil, we learn a lot about him and very little about Grace, who is either too weak to talk or doesn’t have anything to say. Either way, she is unusually quiet as she sits in her bed knitting and eating pudding. No matter, Kemp is the chatty sort and as he hasn’t seen his aunt in 30 years, he naturally fills her in on what he’s been up to. Mostly, he recalls his depressing childhood.  Desperately wanting a daughter, his mother raised him as a girl. “I never got the hang of being a boy” explains Kemp. “I wasn’t unhappy that I looked like a girl, I was just unhappy that I wasn’t one.”

A survivor of Stage IV colon cancer and one of Philly’s most respected actors, Phelan instills in Grace a combination of humor, patience, courage and compassion—which is tough considering she barely speaks. But Phelan’s facial expressions are so communicative that words are unnecessary. Her portrayal is so indelible, it is impossible to imagine another actress in the role.

Haas’ off-beat, slightly effeminate Kemp is almost as good. In the hands of a lesser actor, Kemp could be a lightweight comic figure, but in Haas’ portrait he is a tragically lonely man desperately in need of companionship. An asexual virgin, he has no friends, only “acquaintances.” His job gave him a small sense of belonging, and without it he seems lost and without direction. 

There is nothing heavy-handed or didactic about Director Peter DeLaurier’s direction. An actor’s director (DeLaurier himself is an award-winning performer), DeLaurier guides the production with a steady hand, eliciting not only tremendous contributions from his actors, but also set designer Nick Embree and sound designer Christopher Colucci, who together with lighting designer Janet Embree create such a self-contained little world that when it begins to snow outside Grace’s bedroom window, we feel as if we’re inside a snow globe depicting an idyllic winter scene.

At once nostalgic and entirely original, this quirky, charming and poignant play moves us in ways that are both unexpected and lasting. 

Through June 12. $20-$36. St. Stephens Theater, 10th and Ludlow sts. 215.829.0395. lanterntheater.org

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