In its opening moments, Morris Panych’s Vigil is a straightforward black comedy about a man visiting his aunt on her deathbed. It’s a good text for a stand-up comic. Then as we get into the second act it’s pure theatre of the absurd. Looking back after the curtain comes down, you realize that Panych wasn’t just riffing on death and dying. He nailed another universal theme: the need to feel loved and accepted.
Panych himself directed the first production of Vigil, which took place at the Belfry Theatre in 1995. Glynis Leyshon was the Belfry’s artistic director then. Twenty-seven years later she has returned to the Belfry to direct this production. She shows a sure hand indeed. In the intervening years, Vigil took over lots of theatres in Canada and abroad. Of the many Panych plays – he’s written upwards of thirty of them – this one sticks in the mind like no other.
“Why are you looking at me like that. I’m your nephew. Okay – so I didn’t visit you for thirty years.” This is Kemp, played by Anton Lipovetsky, addressing Grace, who sits silent in her bed propped up by pillows. As Grace, Nicola Lipman must act without words, which she does very well.
It soon becomes clear that Kemp is more interested in his aunt’s death, and how it might benefit him than in tending to her in her final days. Bearing a clipboard, he proffers a will for her signature: “You are leaving it all to me.” The vigil lasts days, then weeks, then passes the year mark.
Kemp puts on a sham show of concern. “What am I supposed to wear to your service?” he asks. “Let’s not talk about anything depressing. Do you want to be cremated?” Grace, her meals served to her bed, alternately smiles, nods, rolls her eyes and occasionally hurls something her nephew.
Vigil is a well honed play. Nearly all the spoken words are Kemp’s. He rambles from self-interest to self-pity to genuine concern, in the process confessing to crimes committed against him by an alcoholic mother. Unfortunately, Lipovetsky doesn’t express the nuances, delivering all his lines at much the same pitch and tone. Maybe he’ll grow into the part with the help of enthusiastic audiences. He can certainly move well.
Lipman makes an excellent bed-ridden aunt, except when her nephew is absent from the room. Then she’s delightfully spry, at one point circumambulating around her bed doing lunges and lifting (invisible) weights.
Ken MacDonald’s set is key to the action, with its aged walls, windows and doors skewed at crazy angles. The Belfry production underscores the durability of Panych’s plays. Long may he reign, in Gilbert Reid’s words, as “a driving force in the Vancouver and Toronto theatre communities.”
By Morris Panych
Directed by Glynis Leyshon
The Belfry, Victoria BC
Live performances through December 11
Live-streamed November 29 to December 4 http://www.belfry.bc.ca
Photos of Anton Lipovetsky and Nicola Lipman by Emily Cooper