- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Death watch and hilarity are not two concepts put together readily. But they get along famously in Morris Panych's devastatingly dark comedy, "Vigil."
The fed-up hero of the play is Kemp, played with impeccable looniness and lyrical touches of warmth and feeling by Floyd King in Studio Theatre's production. Mr. King's marvelously mobile face and seemingly boneless body are put to such grand use in the character of Kemp he is a clown, but a graceful and beautifully sad one.
Kemp, who is idiosyncratic and paranoiac to say the least, is called away from his sort-of life by his dying Aunt Grace (Diana Sowle). With a mighty big bee in his bonnet, Kemp speeds to Grace's deathbed. But he is not too pleased to return to the hometown he loathed and to a relative he barely knew.
To add fuel to the fire, Grace is not going gently into that good night. Sly and spirited, Grace is propped up in bed like a movie star. She eats like a Teamster, sneaks smokes, knits furiously and makes plans for Christmas.
Kemp was expecting a quicker exit. He hounds her unmercifully and with one-liners that will have you howling with laughter about getting a move on toward the afterlife. As he does this, his gestures and his words are comically at odds with each other. Efficiently and chirpily cutting Grace's meat, he says, "We should discuss your organs."
He also blithely talks about cremating Grace and using the ashes to fertilize an amaryllis plant while bustling around the room straightening things up.
In between crisply stating such gaucheries as "I've drawn up your will. You've left everything to me," Kemp fills us in on his strange childhood. His mother had her hands full (a cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other), his father was a manic-depressive magician, and little Kemp stayed indoors with a hair dryer hood on his head most of the time. He was also a budding cross-dresser, traces of which remain in adulthood, as Kemp marks the seasons with a festive array of over-the-top homemade hats and theme aprons. By the way, no one wears an apron with more elan than Mr. King.
Grace apparently is struck dumb by Kemp's ungracious remarks, since she doesn't say a word until the end of the first act. Yet she isn't a passive presence, since she makes her reactions quite clear by her flashing, hooded eyes, the shrugs of her shoulders and some rather aggressive clacking of knitting needles. Her timing is as immaculate as Mr. King's, and the two of them collaborate in a strange, wistful dance to their own private music.
The first act of "Vigil" is a series of blackouts, one comic moment zinging into the next as Kemp and Grace tumble through a year together. The second act is more settled as we begin to know more about Kemp and his way with the bitter quip. Beyond his extreme reactions, we begin to see a heightened sensitivity, as if humiliation and disappointments through his life have somehow turned his skin inside out and exposed his nerve endings to heat and light.
As odd as the arrangement is, the situation works for the two, even more so when Kemp realizes it is never too late to care for someone. He has had a small, sad existence, but one with a soft note of triumph in late midlife.
Director Joy Zinoman, set designer Russell Metheny and costume designer Helen Huang have sprinkled ample dollops of charm throughout the production to add a weird bit of cheer to what is essentially grim subject matter. The set, basically a barely furnished room in an attic, is festooned with a jaunty blue sky-and-clouds pattern, which is echoed in Grace's nightgown and matching bloomers. Mr. Metheny amusingly marks the seasons with a tree that revolves to reveal bare branches, blossoms, sunflowers and autumn leaves some of which flutter into the room to adorn Grace's bed.
Miss Zinoman plays the gallows humor of the script for all it is worthy, setting off little comedic bombs all over the place, some where you least expect. She creates an atmosphere of a batty carnival, as music blares, lights blaze and there are a slew of zany sound effects.
"Vigil" may seem a macabre source of delight it is kind of like a Hallmark card drawn by Gahan Wilson yet not since "Arsenic and Old Lace" has death been treated so fetchingly.

Four out of four stars
WHAT: "Vigil," by Morris Panych
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Oct. 15
WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW
TICKETS: $19.50 to $39.50
PHONE: 202/332-3300

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