It’s been years since Vancouver playwright/director/actor Morris Panych has performed on a local stage. Seeing him strut his stuff again in Vigil, nicely directed by Glynis Leyshon at the Playhouse, makes it painfully, hilariously obvious just how much we’ve been missing. Starring for the first time in what might be his very best play, Panych is enthralling.
As a writer he specializes in dark existential comedy. His typical protagonist is an ordinary, anonymous little man bewildered by life but sufficiently self-conscious to realize its ridiculous ironies and be embittered by his own marginal role in the absurdly meaningless drama that always ends in death. Panych’s characters, like Samuel Beckett’s, suffer the worst of both worlds. They’re tormented by loneliness but other people appall them. Life in these plays is a nasty cosmic joke.
In Vigil Panych plays Kemp, summoned by a letter to the bedside of his aged, dying aunt, whom he hasn’t seen in decades. In 37 short scenes divided by quick blackouts, Grace (Jennifer Phipps) lies in bed, covers pulled up to her neck, knitting and eating butterscotch pudding while misanthropic Kemp rails against the pointlessness of life in general and his own pathetic existence.
Encouraging her to hurry up and die, Kemp is bleakly, cruelly funny. “Why are you putting on makeup? Why don’t you let the mortician do that?” He even builds a bizarre contraption to give Grace the option of death by electrocution or a blow to the head.
But as months pass, it becomes clear that they share with most other people, despite the awfulness and humiliations of their lives, what Kemp mockingly calls the “fervent, tooth-grinding urgency” to live. Their relationship takes off in a surprising, and surprisingly moving, direction.
Panych delivers a masterful comic performance. In addition to his great gallows humour, Kemp has an excruciatingly funny autobiography recounting his dysfunctional parents, youthful transvestism, and Catholic school miseducation. The result, he says, is an asexual adulthood in which he’d prefer even a root canal to genital contact.
Panych the actor makes the most of his own terrific script. His verbal delivery is dry with just the hint of a whine, and his comic timing impeccable. He combines expressive body language reminiscent of Steve Martin with a pained, peevish look that’s pure Morris.
Phipps’s mostly deadpan Grace provides a fine comic foil, and the musical design of Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe helps shape the production’s subtle emotional arc.
The dirty, high windowed walls of Ken MacDonald’s set, as precariously skewed as Kemp’s life, also suggest a warehouse, the fate of so many elderly Graces not as fortunate as this one in finding someone—even someone as screwed up as Kemp—with whom to live and die.