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ACT II: A second look at area stages — ‘Vigils’ at the Gift Theatre

A widow (Hillary Clemens) can’t let go her late husband’s soul (Jay Worthington) “Vigils.” | JoshuLongbrake photo

A widow (Hillary Clemens) can’t let go of her late husband’s soul (Jay Worthington) in “Vigils.” | Joshua Longbrake photo

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When: Through April 21

Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: $25-$30

Info: (773) 283-7071;

Run time: 75 minutes with no intermission

Updated: March 10, 2013 3:47AM

‘Happiness never really lasts,” says the young widow at the center of “Vigils,” Noah Haidle’s fierce, quirky, poetic, deeply poignant, yet often very funny play about love, loss, grief, memory and the difficulty of saying goodbye.

I first saw this 75-minute fantasia in 2006, when it was produced on the vast mainstage of the Goodman Theatre, and when it seemed to capture the lingering mourning of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Last week I caught the Gift Theatre revival of Haidle’s beautiful play in its tiny storefront — a space in which the audience sits barely a half inch from the stage. And, under Erica Weiss’ inspired, intensely physical direction, it felt even richer and more wide-ranging in its meaning.

The young, wonderfully expressive actress Hillary Clemens gives a standout performance as the widow, and she is flawlessly backed by Jay Worthington as her firefighter husband’s tormented soul, James D. Farruggio as his body and Kyle Zornes as her nerdy suitor, an emergency medical worker who adores her but has arrived at a very wrong time in her life.

It has been two years since the widow’s husband died trying to rescue a baby from a burning house, and she is about to go on her first date. The only problem is that she is still living with the man’s soul, which she impulsively grabbed hold of and locked in a large trunk at the foot of her bed. Not only does she still open that trunk for a daily hug, but she continually replays their marriage with the body — their meeting, their not always great sex, the depression that followed her miscarriage, the unresolved fight the two had the morning he headed off to work and lost his life in a fire. She cannot find peace. She cannot move on.

The soul has a rough time of it too. After all, it’s unnatural not to be able to rest in peace on the other side. A ferocious wrestling match (cheers to the fearless actors and fight director John Tovar) captures the tension. As for the poor suitor, he tries everything but ultimately can’t cope with the widow’s hot-and-cold responses.

Stephen H. Carmody’s bedroom set with the angled skylight, Elizabeth M. Patterson’s lighting, Anna Henson’s projections and Alarie Hammock’s costumes are perfection. As for Clemens (the petite actress looks great in everything) and her men, this is Chicago acting at its very best.

NOTE: This fall, the Goodman will present the world premiere of Haidle’s “Smokefall,” in which a woman whose life is in chaos is about to give birth to twin sons. Something to look forward to. Haidle is the real deal.

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