Death becomes her

By Tom Helma

Star wattage lights up dark comedy, 'Vigil'

What exactly does a man say to a barely recognizable family member he hasn’t seen in 30 years, and what if she’s not as close to death as he was led to believe? Morris Panych, the playwright behind Lansing Community College’s production of “Vigil,” explores this dark little corner of family decorum, taking the audience through a macabre process that is enlightening, comedic and poignant to the end.

Kemp (Timothy Busfield), nephew to and last living relative of Grace (Carmen Decker), arrives at his aunt’s bedside after he receives a letter informing him of her imminent demise. Kemp expresses every real and imagined slight that has happened to him throughout his life. He is quite the bitter loner, a sad, sorry-assed excuse for a human being with no apparent sense of compassion. This is demonstrated by his acerbic observations of neighbors walking by the window and the stories he tells of his emotionally painful upbringing. Like a bedridden Freudian analyst, Grace smiles, stares and occasionally grunts.

The key to making material like this work is having some sense of issue resolution to guide the audience. In this respect, Panych’s writing is superb. We can guess where the story is going, and when it goes elsewhere, we experience a sense of delightful surprise. Both Busfield and Decker are at the top of their respective games. Her character is mute for most of the play, relying on facial expressions to communicate. Busfield, meanwhile, displays a witty, comedic depth never before seen in his TV and movie roles. He also pulls off a comic bit worthy of the best of Jerry Lewis near the end of Act I, eliciting enthusiastic applause.

“Vigil” does more than simply provide a sense of empathy for the social contract that many of us, at some point, will have to embrace (namely, that one shall die and another shall attend to that death) — it is also damned good theater.

Lansing Community College
Through Sept. 23
8 p.m. Friday and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
LCC Black Box Theatre Room 168 Gannon Building
$15 adults/$12 seniors/$10 students
(517) 372-0945 : box office (noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday)
(517) 483-1488: information