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Talented actors pull off ‘Vigil’ at Pillsbury House Theater

Alongside a sometimes farcical, sometimes touching look at aging and loneliness, Morris Panych’s “Vigil” also offers a pair of intriguing acting challenges. There are only two characters. One — lost, misanthropic and lonely Kemp — does nearly all the talking. The other, equally lonely aunt Grace, doesn’t utter a word until the very end of act one and says little else through the rest of the show.

The Pillsbury House Theatre nabbed a couple of highly talented ringers in its current production as Steve Hendrickson and Shirley Venard take on the roles.

Hendrickson is expert at bringing prickly, unlikable characters to full life, and he has quite a task here. Kemp is a middle-aged loser, a low-level bank functionary who has no friends or ambitions. At the play’s beginning he has left his dull job to visit his only remaining living relative, an aged aunt he has had no contact with for decades. He’s thinking that his visit will only last a matter of days, but as it stretches to weeks and then months, Kept unloads all of his pent-up angry and frustration on Grace — who,­ as befitting her name,­ takes it all in silently.

As the play deepens, their relationship takes several dark turns for a time. Kemp wants to “assist” her in suicide, so he can get on with his life ­— but he also evolves into something deeper, richer and more honest. All of these conflicting emotions make for uneasy watching ­ — something I’m sure Panych was shooting for — but the actors help to pull it off in their own rich characterizations.

Hendrickson gives what is close to a two-hour monologue, as the character screams against the unfair world and his own failings. As I noted, Kemp isn’t all that likeable, but Hendrickson makes him human.

While she doesn’t have much dialogue, Venard still has a tough part to play, as she needs to convey her own character’s feelings, needs, wants and hopes through her body language (that the character spends 90 percent of the play in bed doesn’t help this). Though we get no details about Grace’s life, the deep sorrow that Venard carries throughout tells us as much as a 20-minute speech.

Helping to hold it all together is director Stephen DiMenna, who in his third go at the material ­ seems to understand the various nooks of the piece, and also strives to keep the energy afloat through the dozens of blackouts separating the short scenes. Also helping to sell it is a terrific set by Joe Stanley, which presents Grace’s bedroom as full of the debris of a long life that has been forgotten by the outside world.

“Vigil” runs through Oct. 17 at the Pillsbury House Theater, 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets are $15-$20. For tickets and more information, call 612-825-0459 or visit online.

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