Woolly Mammoth's 'Vigils': Death and the Soul of Wit

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

In "Vigils," Noah Haidle's charmingly life-affirming new play, Naomi Jacobson portrays a woman who refuses to let her husband go. The complication is that he's dead.

Her need to keep him close is so all-consuming that the afterlife proves no obstacle. At the instant he departs this world, she shanghais his soul, takes it back to her apartment and stashes it in her hope chest.

Thusly do Widow and Soul cohabit in Haidle's sweetly addled tale, acted with comic relish in the appealing incarnation at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Haidle is the author of "Mr. Marmalade," a weird and wicked satire about a little girl whose imaginary friend is a grown man who abuses her. The playwright shows us a softer side in "Vigils," as the Widow grapples with the extramarital question of just how long her flesh is willing to mess with his spirit.

The intermingling of the here and the hereafter strikes just the right note of absurdity in director Colette Searls's pleasing treatment. But there's more to the story than mere kidding around. The play's poignant dimension grows out of the intensity of the Widow's struggle to hold on to the connection, to retain a memory of intimacy. At the core of "Vigils" is the power that death can have to suspend reality, to force one into a state of denial. And how grieving sometimes finds us alternative ways to breathe until we're ready to accept and move on.

"Vigils" owes something of a debt to the lyricism of "Prelude to a Kiss," Craig Lucas's romantic comedy in which an old man and a young bride magically exchange bodies -- and the young bridegroom can still look into the old man's eyes and recognize his wife's essence. Haidle's play doesn't romanticize connubial bliss in quite the same way, as the husband and wife of "Vigils" have been together much longer and are in the habit of getting on each other's last nerve.

One of the twists is that the Widow's impulses are as punitive as they are loving: Her clinging actually causes pain to the Soul, played with witty weariness by Michael Russotto. Being trapped in the temporal world forces the Soul -- a firefighter who has died on the job -- to relive moments from his existence again and again and again. Think of it as a life that never ceases to pass before your eyes.

To distinguish between the ethereal Soul and the corporeal fireman, "Vigils" enlists a second actor -- in this production, Matthew Montelongo -- to play the man's Body. Russotto bears witness as Montelongo reenacts scenes from the marriage, as well as from the fire that ended his life.

In the overly busy road map Haidle draws for himself, the issue of whose perspective we're getting, and exactly what is happening to whom, becomes more complicated than it needs to be. Still, all the mix-ups are related with such positive comic energy that the impediments never feel insurmountable.

The creepier "Mr. Marmalade," set partly in the mind of a disturbed 4-year-old whose exposures to men apparently have been nothing but traumatizing, is not a multilayered play. "Vigils" is messier, but it's a more generous take on human frailty, particularly as it unravels the Widow's grudging efforts to wean herself off the Soul.

Those attempts largely have to do with the awkward advances of one of the Soul's former firefighting buddies, a suitor identified here simply as "Wooer" and played as a lovable bundle of nerves by J. Fred Shiffman. Dressed by costume designer Kate Turner-Walker in the garish pastels of the truly clueless, Shiffman is thoroughly convincing as a needy sad sack who has never quite found a girl -- or the nerve to move out of his mother's house.

The personable Jacobson somehow helps us to believe that the Widow is not off her rocker, that kissing the soul of her dead husband and then locking it in a box every night is just another thing that married people do. There's both a solidity and vulnerability in her Widow that at once make her feelings seem authentic and yet allow for the possibility that she's on the brink of drowning in her delusions.

Russotto and the magnetic Montelongo bear enough of a resemblance to fashion a credible yin-yang relationship. And the physical dimensions of the production are well served by lighting designer Colin K. Bills and set designer Daniel Ettinger, who create an apartment for the Widow that shifts seamlessly from the precincts of the real to the surreal.

"Vigils" loses its footing somewhat in its last half-hour, as Haidle attempts to maintain the balance between the comedy's whimsical underpinnings and the more serious life issues the Widow confronts. The better news, however, is that the play never stops spreading goodwill.

Vigils, by Noah Haidle. Directed by Colette Searls. Sound and original music, Ryan Rumery; choreography, Michael J. Bobbitt; fight choreography, John Gurski. With Connor Aikin. About one hour 40 minutes. Through Feb. 25 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit http://www.woollymammoth.net.

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