What happens when you bring together on stage for two hours a crabby misanthrope and a silent invalid?
That’s exactly what the Actors Theatre Playhouse (ATP) is doing as their 2012 season begins on June 14, with Canadian playwright Morris Panych’s dark comedy, Vigil.
Terri Storti directs Gregory Lesch and Nancy Groff in a two-character play that will open the 38th season of the ATP in West Chesterfield, N.H., with 12 performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights through July 7.
In Vigil, a solitary young bank employee impatiently awaits the death of his silent, bedridden old aunt, filling the time with ruminations and recollections, and one-liners on mortality. When the aunt, Grace, writes a letter to her nephew, Kemp, from whom she has been estranged for more than 30 years, telling him that she is about to die, Kemp rushes to her bedside to wait for the inevitable.
Her demise does not come as quickly as Kemp might have anticipated, however, and he soon grows impatient.
At one point he says to her, “I’m concerned about your health these last few days; it seems to be improving.”
In fact, Kemp’s stay ends up lasting a year, during which the play explores an unusual relationship between an ostensibly mute old woman and her nephew.
“ Vigil was written by an actor,” Lesch said. “Panych wrote the drama for himself, that is, to give himself a good part to play.”
Morris Panych has written more than two dozen plays that have been produced across Canada, Britain, and the United States. Vigil has been translated into 19 languages and won the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award for Outstanding Original Play or Musical in 1996.
Although Vigil is technically a two-person play, Kemp has almost all the lines.
“I think Nancy who plays Grace has about 12 lines in the whole play,” said Lesch, “which gives me the lion’s share of the text. I don’t mean that her part is small. She has much to do, mostly with silent acting, which can be even more difficult, since she can often only react.”
Lesch finds facing so big a part has been a great challenge for him. “I have to carry all the dialogue for most of this almost two hour play,” he said. “To be honest, it was quite difficult for me to learn the lines. Not only are there so many, but I have no dialogue prompts from other characters.”
Yet one reason he was intrigued by the play is that because for years he has been toying around with the lure of a one-man show.
“ Vigil becomes a sort of compromise for me,” he said, “through which I could get my feet wet with this very unique sort of theater.”
“The structure of this very literate play also is very unusual,” continued Lesch. The play has 37 scenes, which are essentially monologues. Some scenes last several pages of text, some are just a few lines.
Keeping the audience engaged
Storti said that although the writing is very clever and witty, the play is written in a series of rather static scenes.
“To make it play in front of an audience requires ingenuity in lighting and sound to keep the audience engaged,” she said.
“Managing props becomes a huge task. They almost need to be choreographed to keep the action moving. It takes a great deal of effort on the part of a lot of people to pull off the finished product. Fortunately, I have great people onstage and off to make it all work.”
The character Kemp, she said with a laugh, is not a particularly likable central character.
“He’s not the kind of guy you would want to hang out with.”
That’s why Storti said her and Lesch’s job is to make Kemp “somewhat appealing” to the audience, someone they can relate to.
Finding the humanity of the character of Kemp is important, while emphasizing the comedy of the situation, Storti said.
“The role requires a wide range of emotion, but he also has to keep track of what comes next, because he drives the action.”
Storti said Groff’s challenge “is to create a character and communicate without speaking most of the time. Sometimes that is even more of a challenge.”
“Vigil” is the sixth play Storti has directed for ATP. Her most recent show as a director was “Fuddy Meers” in 2010. Prior to coming to Vermont, she earned a Master of Fine Arts in acting from the University of Southern California. Storti was a member of Equity, AFTRA and SAG; she has toured with a rep company, did summer stock, and worked professionally in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and Orlando.
She emphasized that while the play deals with life and death, it is essentially a comedy, albeit a dark one.
“The lines are quirkily funny,” Storti said. “And while the ideas in this play go all over the place, it is the humor that holds everything together.”