Grateful Dead

Noah Haidle's 'Vigils' is a lovely little play in which an ordinary married couple must face letting go of each other

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could capture the souls of our loved ones just before their ascent (or descent, as it were) to the Great Beyond? They wouldn’t require much attention — no food or water, none of the burdens of the corporeal body as we know it — and they could offer us sage afterlife advice on all of our worldly trials and tribulations.

We would just have to remember to lock them up in a box before bedtime each night.



Till Death: Russotto, Montelongo and Jacobson
(Photo by Stan Barouh)

And so it goes in Noah Haidle’s Vigils, a lovely little play of extraordinary ideas packaged in an ordinary married couple who must face letting go of their lives and letting go of each other.

It’s a romantic premise — a Widow (Naomi Jacobson) won’t let go of her firefighter husband as his body burns while searching for a crying baby in a blazing house. Instead, she clings to his alighting Soul (Michael Russotto), a wise and wittier incarnation of his former self on Earth. And though he remains blind by the virtue of realism, Soul is still able to offer searing insight to the daily routine his wife’s quiet life has become. She won’t let him go on to seek eternal judgment, holding him prisoner to his past life by locking him up after a tender hugging ritual every night.

What to do when Widow accepts a date from a gentleman caller, a Wooer (J. Fred Schiffman) who worked alongside her husband at the fire department? And what about the Soul’s restless Body (Matthew Montelongo), a studly and sinful thing who keeps imposing on the truth of the couple’s hazy and sporadic memories?

It’s a romantic premise, alright, but Haidle’s treatment of such matters of life and death is an eccentric romp through raw and concealed emotions bubbling up to the surface at the worst possible moments. In a sad and happy amalgamation of life’s bittersweet blows combined with a penchant for the thoroughly absurd, Haidle explores the relationships between the living and their loved ones who have passed on in ways both sacred and profane.

Haidle’s brilliant and brawny vision of what could be reverberates in Woolly Mammoth’s splendid east coast premiere from the 20-something playwright. With a fresh, new voice Haidle crafts crisp and witty dialogue that is at once real, relatable, and honest.

Of course none of it would be possible without the whimsical guidance of Collette Searls, who orchestrates moments of unbridled joy and heartbreaking comedy. Whether they are reliving painful memories or gyrating to the squeals of Britney Spears, the performances by Searls’s cast are always alive and animated on Daniel Ettinger’s dream state of a set.

Vigils
starstarstarstar

To Feb. 25
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St. NW
$10-$52
202-393-3939
www.woollymammoth.net

Under incredibly creative lighting from Colin K. Bills, Jacobson delivers a deft interpretation of a widow living with equal amounts grief and hope, and her raucous exchanges with both Russotto and Montelongo exude an improvised quality that smacks of an arsenal of clever inside jokes. Montelongo is especially bemusing as he flexes the same comic prowess that made him such a delight in last season’s The Game of Love and Chance at the Folger. But it is Shiffman’s Wooer who quietly steals each scene with an endearing charm and affable naïveté. He’s the man our mothers would cheer for, the only guy a restless soul could possibly feel comfortable leaving with his wife, and Schiffman portrays the insecure suitor with just enough confidence to make us believe that this time he just might get the girl.

At 90 minutes without an intermission, Haidle packs a few false finishes into an otherwise tidy and well-tempered script. His glorious take on all of the strange and beautiful ways we keep vigil for our loved ones isn’t always neat and clean and compact — but it does present a feast of ideas and questions that will keep the mind buzzing long after its curtain calls. And while Vigils may seem a morose and irreverent tribute to the dearly departed, Haidle’s astute observations on how we handle intricate questions of eternal life makes for one very, very funny play.

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