Directed by Erica Weiss
Starring Hillary Clemens, Jim Farruggio,
Jay Worthington and Kyle Zornes
Produced by The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Uneven performances and mawkish metaphors malign an otherwise evocative premise.
Playwright Noah Haidle’s one-act play Vigils—opening at the Gift Theatre on Thursday—is undoubtedly an imaginative and intimate exploration of love and loss, but the production at hand is still in the germinal phases of development. At an otherwise brief seventy-five minutes, it is still a tad overwritten, and it is not clear that the performers have been given adequate time to sink into their roles.
Vigils is the story of a young Widow (Hillary Clemens) who keeps her husband’s deceased Soul (Jay Worthington) in a box at the foot of her bed. Two years after his death—and longing at last to experience love once again—she is faced with the choice of either letting him go or holding on to him forever. The Soul, for his part, is a literal and substantive presence in her life, even engaging her would-be Wooer (Kyle Zornes) in friendly back-and-forth.
Dreamily interweaving in and out of memory, we are presented with the backstory of the Widow’s life with her husband (whose earthly Body is played by James D. Farruggio). We learn of their high school courtship and of their hurried marriage. We learn of her miscarriage (the unborn child continues to haunt her) and of his problem with premature ejaculation. And to Vigils‘s credit, memory here serves far more than as mere exposition, actually helping to deepen the texture of the play, bringing a certain degree of weight to the Widow’s inevitable decision to let her husband’s Soul go. In this, Vigil does something very difficult—allowing decisions and events already located in the past to bear directly down on the singular issue of the Widow’s imminent decision in the present.
Still, Vigils is prone to some heavy-handed and clichéd ruminations on the nature of love, loss and renewal. And its efforts to blend the conventions of a realist drama with more mytho-poetic diction results in several awkwardly mawkish metaphors. Bursting in on her husband in the shower, the Widow proceeds to tell him how she is a flower and he the sun and how life without him is an interminable winter. And while this may be the kind of thing lovers actually tell one another, they do so only when nothing more original is available. In fact, Haidle’s play works best when it lets its character’s naturally colloquial diction unfold within the context of the play’s surrealist structure, avoiding self-consciously stylized metaphors and “flowery language.”
Moreover, performances are hit or miss. Hillary Clemens as the Widow is far and away the biggest draw. Even Vigils‘s more lurid passages receive a natural and genuine expression in her capably charming hands. When speaking outward, Clemens takes the opportunity to engage the audience directly in the eye, which in a play otherwise prone to rhetorical flights of language, makes all the difference. Of all the performers, she seems to have forged the most sincere of connection to the text, and her subsequent portrayal is remarkably empathetic. Jay Worthington as her husband’s Soul is regrettably underwhelming. Worthington (somewhat ironically) succeeds in capturing the anemic physicality of the trapped Soul, but the lyrical dimensions of Haidle’s language feels emotionally insincere (even disembodied?)—so that it hits the hear as so much rote recitation. James D. Farruggio as the husband’s Body is charming enough, and actually succeeds in bringing some much needed levity to otherwise heavy material. Kyle Zornes as the Wooer is aptly adorable, but like Worthington, he hasn’t quite found a way to embody Haidle’s dreamy diction into something genuinely believable.
For that matter, the Wooer is Haidle’s weakest character, without any hint of irony or subtext. An indication that Haidle is working more with notional abstractions than actual people, the Wooer’s ideal mixture of openness, affection and sincerity is suspiciously too good to be true. Others may disagree, but it strikes me that the real quandary of having to let go of fleeting happiness is that we never move on to anything quite so ideal. The way forward never lives up to the idyllic memories we leave behind, and to suggest otherwise feels like something of an emotional contrivance. Were the Wooer less than ideal, the Widow would find no reason to release her husband’s Soul. But do we only ever move on from our pasts because something better eventually comes along? I’m not quite convinced.
In short, an evocatively rich premise and an otherwise compelling performance from its leading lady doesn’t quite tip the scales in Vigils‘s favor. There is much potential here, but like the marigold seed in winter, that potential remains mostly dormant.
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Monday, March 4th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.
Vigils runs until April 21st, 2013. The Gift Theater is located at 4802 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL 60630. Tickets can be obtained through their box office at (773) 283-7071. Half-price tickets are available at their Theater in Chicago listing: https://www.theatreinchicago.com/vigils/6150/.