KEEPING VIGIL As the Widow, Janice Gardner grapples with love and loss
A Widow (Janice Gardner) has had trouble moving on from the death of her firefighter husband: She keeps his Soul (Burke Brimmer) locked in a box — literally — and talks to and hugs it at regular intervals. Grieving is an intricate process of internal voices and memories, all of which are very much in the Widow’s room in Vigils, Noah Haidle’s alternately whimsical and profane allegory about love and loss. It is vividly directed for Mad Horse Theatre Company by Nathan Speckman (who memorably directed Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade in last summer’s PortFringe festival).
The presence of the Soul in the Widow’s household complicates the romantic plans of the Widow’s new suitor, the Wooer (a charmingly awkward Jody McColman). He was a friend of her husband’s and he too can see and hear the Soul — which makes canoodling awkward when she brings him home. Meanwhile, the Widow’s and the Soul’s memories of the husband’s Body (Mark Rubin) entangle her even more deeply in the past.
As the characters remind us, “memories come in no particular order,” and the show evolves in skillfully staged, evocative cycles, repetitions, and variations of what they remember. On an airily drawn set (a doorjamb, a window, an open-constructed Soul box), Body, Soul, and Widow act out multiple tellings of the couple’s first meeting (at a high school dance), the husband’s final moments (in a burning building), and their respective dreams, often of flying (with fantastic birds-eye landscapes, designed by Sam Rapaport, projected on the stage floor).
Those who made it to Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade (a comedy about a six year old’s imaginary cokehead boyfriend) saw a show of outrageously entertaining obscenity and snark. In Vigils, that side of Haidle’s humor is present but greatly subdued. Dialogue is riddled with mild edginess and colloquialisms (a running masturbation motif; lines like “Seriously. My nuts are up in my stomach.”), but these are tempered with earnest avowals and lyricism. Sometimes that lyrical earnestness stalls a little — marigolds get a lot of play as a symbol; lines like “We accept the inevitability of loss and the ever-changing nature of life” land with a bit of a thud — but ultimately Haidle’s juxtapositions build an interesting emotional momentum.
The action onstage accelerates bracingly, as the Widow’s memories come faster and are staggered between several voices at once, or as with disarming violence she wrestles and beats up the Soul to keep him held. But the show is often most affecting in its subtler, stranger moments: In a beautifully odd script detail, souls do not have eyes, and Brimmer’s facial gestures are fascinating as, wearing empty, silvery-pale contact lenses, he gazes near but never quite at the Widow. When the Soul recalls the Widow’s first date with the Wooer, he concedes he couldn’t quite hear them, and they repeat their scene in garbled, enchantingly delivered nonsense.
The show’s characters especially arresting in their quieter moments. When the Widow is shocked by the escape of her soul, we measure her devastation not by an outburst, but by the dangerous surface stillness on the face of Gardner, who does a marvelous job swerving from manic and comedic to hushed and haunted. Brimmer’s nicely muted Soul finds excellent contrast in Rubin’s taut, aggressively physical Body, and Brimmer delivers an exquisite scene as the Soul remembers the Widow and Husband dancing: He lowers those sightless eyes and parts his lips, a smile and something else almost reaching his mouth.