‘Vigils’ at DePaul’s Theatre School explores memories and mortality

The body (Nathan Simpson) and the soul (Christian Cook)  characturize different parts of a widows deceased husband in “Vigils.” (Photo courtesy of Michael Browsilow)
The body (Nathan Simpson) and the soul (Christian Cook) characturize different parts of a widows deceased husband in “Vigils.” (Photo courtesy of Michael Browsilow)

The intimate setting of DePaul’s Healy Theatre, located in The Theatre School, which boasts a mere 100 seats and whose first row literally begins on the stage, was an apt compliment to its emotionally enveloping production of Noah Haidle’s “Vigils.” Directed by Andrew Peters, MFA Class of 2016, the play bluntly explores the cyclical nature of grief and the repetitive and jarring pattern that memories are recalled to both comedic and tragic effect.

Set solely in the house inhabited by two of the central characters, the painstaking attention to detail in the scenic design helps to celebrate the mundane aspects of everyday life the play’s characters learn to cherish as they reflect upon their memories. Each object in apparent disarray serves a purpose, from the coat slung over the foot of the bed to the large old-fashioned box slightly askew atop a driftwood dresser. The glasses and bottles scattered on the various surfaces hint at the protagonist’s attempts to drown her grief before she even takes the stage.

The play operates on the idea of a young widow, spiritedly played by Audrey Gladson, physically keeping the soul of her dead husband in a box in their home because she cannot come to terms with the shocking loss. Christian Cook, as the aforementioned soul, caricaturizes the counterpart of his body, played by Nathan Simpson, by emphasizing his lines in a way that both hilariously and devastatingly highlights the absurd desperation of his widow’s attempt to keep him with her.

While Gladson and Simpson as the prominent couple of the show have convincing chemistry, the powerful and emotional exchange between each character is what ultimately renders its dialogue so impactful. Many of the show’s laugh-out-loud moments came from the awkward tension between the soul and his widow’s new and earnest love interest, played by Frankie Stornaiulo.

Another hysterical highlight is the expertly choreographed bit of physical comedy performed by Gladson and Cook, when the former attempts to prevent the latter from escaping out the window by brute force. Stornaiulo’s inspired dancing to a crowd-pleasing Earth Wind & Fire song is another charming moment that inspires the kind of laughter usually reserved for inside jokes made by old friends.

Much like memories themselves, the motifs and dialogues of the play return throughout its single act of 95 minutes. The familiarity of the widow and her husband’s final fight and his last thoughts before death become more heart-wrenching as they are transformed into the audience’s memories through repetition. Reminiscent of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” these flashbacks seamlessly weave the past events as they occurred with the present perspective of each character. Through thoughtful use of props, the widow’s love of marigolds is subtly mentioned throughout the play, culminating in a visually arresting display that captivates and uplifts the viewer.

Despite some impressive and lengthy monologues, the most goosebump-inducing, tear-jerking moment of “Vigils” comes from the lips of the widow upon seeing the soul has succeeded in escaping. Gladson’s repetition of one simple word in three different tones highlights the play’s strength of presenting different perspectives to provide a full and harmonious portrayal of the complex nature of memories.

For a play driven by characters coming to terms with mortality, “Vigils” is a life-affirming glimpse at the performance of one woman and the man she loved on their own personal stage of grief. At one point, the soul bemoans the inability to “just remember the happy times.” Though the play does not definitively answer why this cannot be, it certainly falls under the domain of one of those fleeting happy times and is a worthwhile addition to any audience member’s cycle of memories.

“Vigils” runs through Nov. 16 at The Theatre School. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.