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Death comes knocking


Claustrophobia sets in immediately. Dusty purple envelopes the walls. Giant silver flowers dance across the wallpaper, dizzying me. The construction of the room draws the eye in. This set is created with purpose.

The plot of Vigil, a morose comedy now running at Geva, mirrors the set: dark and disorienting. A bare wooden floor, sparse simple furnishings, and a bay window comprise the bedroom in which the entire play takes place. This confined space is a prison from which Kemp, a neurotic and anti-social ex-banker, cannot escape.

Kemp is summoned home by his only and barely living relative, an elderly aunt. He expects to say a quick goodbye, plan a cheap funeral, and reap the benefit of any inheritance. But life, or death, isn't that easy.

Playwright Morris Panych has dedicated this work to "all those who have died and all those who haven't gotten around to it." Be prepared, as the play addresses death with macabre hilarity. It is painful to giggle as this fragile woman is dying, but the brutal honesty of this comedy will force a laugh.

Why would anyone write a comedy about such a depressing topic as dying alone? "Old age, loneliness and death are too sad to be anything but funny," Panych says in the program notes. "I saw people who were dying and had no one to say goodbye to, and this moved me deeply. The play derives its humor from this hard juxtaposition."

Irma St. Paule plays Grace, Kemp's supposedly dying aunt, with an ethereal charm. Her face is unforgettable. It's intense, like that of Georgia O'Keefe. The wisdom in her eyes hints to the audience that her character knows more than she will reveal. She is petite and her voice delicate, endearing her character to the audience. Though she says little, her performance is poignant. And I wasn't the only one touched. Many people left the theater in tears. The audience couldn't deny this actress anything.

Raymond Bokhour plays Kemp, a miserably pathetic man whose mother was a coldhearted drunk and his father a suicidal manic depressive. He is unemployed, friendless, and hasn't completely come to terms with his tendency to cross-dress. Although I can't quite picture him in heels, Bokhour is convincing. He carries 95 percent of the show's lines, performing what is, essentially, an hour-and-a-half monologue.

Geva has put together an interesting lobby display exploring the play's technical elements. These elements, if executed brilliantly, don't draw attention away from the story, but enhance it. For the most part, this is true for the technical design of this production. You may never have noticed the nuances of the lights, set, and sound. The display deconstructs the choices made by the technical team, which includes the stage manager and costume, lighting, sound, and set designers.

The set design, as always, is spectacular. But the scene changes leave something to be desired. Again and again, the lights go out and melodramatic piano music swells. These transitions are jarring and remove the audience from the flow of the story.

The dissonant chords of Auld Lang Syne foreshadow the disturbing surprise to come. During the reveal of this surprise, the director creates a beautiful stage picture. Kemp, in the prime of his life, and Grace, at the end of hers, stand quietly, backs to the audience, framed by the window that is their only connection to the outside world.

Although the play's end is excruciating to watch and Kemp's solitude almost palpable, this show's original mix of humor and sadness is well worth the twinge of pain.

You should go if you like the idea of a play that "addresses death with macabre hilarity."

Vigil through February 5 | GevaTheatreCenter, 75 Woodbury Boulevard | $13.50 to $48.50 | 232-4382,