By Debra Miller
Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent
Photos by Mark Garvin
In 1991, famed drag queen and Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn dedicated her autobiography, A Lowlife in High Heels, to “those who have known the struggle of being different, endured the fear of rejection, and mustered the courage to survive.” She also paid homage to her parents, who, she wrote, “loved me, cried for me, and supported me when I was up, down, and sideways!”
Holly was far more fortunate than Kemp, the protagonist in Lantern Theater Company’s heartbreaking production of Vigil, by gay Canadian playwright Morris Panych. Focusing on the emotional abuse and loneliness resulting from confused gender identity, and relating it to the plight of the elderly as the “throw-aways” of our society, Vigil is the darkest of comedies. But the best of it is not a comedy at all; it is a love story between two lost souls, who accidentally come together and briefly connect.
The play is composed of 38 short scenes, in which Kemp progressively reveals the horrors of his childhood to the wealthy old woman he presumes to be his dying Aunt Grace, from whom he has been estranged for 30 years. Unloved, misunderstood, and damaged, Kemp viciously plans the details of Grace’s imminent death and funeral services with shocking insensitivity. Among the most comical and slapstick is the suicide machine he builds for her – constructed with great imagination by set designer Nick Embree and his interns – which goes awry and elicits the loudest laughs of the play.
Grace endures Kemp’s outrageous diatribes in silence, but with hilarious, readily legible facial expressions that mirror the audience’s reactions to his venom. In the end, Grace and all of us come to understand the source of his torment and empathize with his pain: Grace because she, too, was lonely; and the audience, because we realize that any one of us could end up in the same situation, alone and unwanted. In the words of the playwright, “I want to write more about lost children; since my parents both died, I feel I have become one.”
Under the masterful direction of Peter De Laurier, the two-person cast of Lenny Haas as Kemp and Ceal Phelan as Grace is superb; their performances are nuanced, their characterizations at once funny and anguished, brutal and bittersweet. They draw us into their growing bond as they become more open and comfortable with each other, and forge the attachment they both so desperately need. As Kemp begins to come out in articles of Grace’s clothing, she knits a dainty sweater for him, which sits vigil over her deathbed in his absence. Their final mutual acceptance is a poignant conclusion to a meaningful production that will make you laugh, cry, think, and connect. In other words, it will make you more human.
Vigil runs through June 12, at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. For more information and tickets, visit the website at www.lanterntheater.org.