The celebrated West Coast playwright Morris Panych knows that the silver lining in many a dark cloud consists of laughter. His popular 1991 play, 7 Stories, focused on a man who was about to jump from a tall building—and turned his predicament into comedy. Panych’s latest work for the stage is his funniest yet, even though it is about an old woman on her deathbed. In Vigil—now playing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre following highly successful runs in Victoria and Vancouver—a dyspeptic, middle-aged bank clerk, Kemp (Brian Tree), leaves his job to attend a dying old aunt in another city. But when Grace (Joyce Campion) refuses to fade away, he grows impatient and tries to do her in. Ingenious to an extreme, Kemp rigs up a suicide machine—and nearly kills himself while demonstrating it to her.
There is something reminiscent of a Roadrunner cartoon in all this: not just the slapstick violence, but also the naked hostility. Vigil is so amusing partly because it is candid about urges that, in real life, have to be suppressed. In addition, Kemp’s outrageous treatment of the old woman helps set up an extraordinarily surprising climax. It occurs when Kemp discovers the true nature of his relationship to Grace, and it is played by Tree with such exquisite comic timing that it seems as if the audience’s laughter will never stop.
Vigil creates a fascinating dialogue between Grace’s silences—in the entire play she speaks only a few lines—and Kemp’s endless dissection of his own unhappiness. And designer Ken MacDonald’s set of walls frozen in mid-collapse is pleasingly emblematic of the disintegration overwhelming these two lives. But there are problems with the opening scenes, where the frequent blackouts are irritating, and the closing ones, where the attempt to portray the kindling of Kemp’s affections for Grace is sentimental and unconvincing. What is most genuine about Vigil is not the obvious movement towards love, but the subtler, more inspired dancing on the coals of sadness and hate.
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