BWW Reviews: VIGIL Challenges Portland Stage Audience
The Portland Stage production of Canadian playwright Morris Panych's black comedy, Vigil, is a provocative and challenging mounting of an often off-putting play. That the company once again has the courage to undertake a work that has had mixed success in the U.S. and clearly pushes the limits of dark, macabre humor is a testament to the Maine stage's commitment to innovation and integrity.
That said, the afternoon in the theatre is not an easy one, even for an experienced reviewer like myself. But then, of course, Panych does not intend it to be. His play, which tells the story of Kemp, a young man who receives a summons to attend the bedside of his dying Aunt, only to find that she is not yet ready to make that journey. In the months that Kemp and Grace share her tiny, bleak apartment, they come to confront the terrifying and messy process of dying, the agony of loneliness, the scars of Kemp's childhood, and the ultimate meaning of caring and compassion.
Drawing inspiration from the theatre of the absurd, Panych tells his story with a searing macabre wit, often so alienating that it makes one cringe at the same time one cannot suppress a chuckle. Moreover, he increases the intensity of the drama by reducing it to two characters in a sparse setting, and then trumping that by making Grace's role virtually mute. Her silence, while it is fraught with all kinds of subtle existential questions and which references iconic characters such as Beckett's Lucky (Waiting for Godot) or Brecht's Kattrin (Mother Courage), nonetheless serves to delineate Kemp's character in sharper relief. And therein, lies another problem with the drama. As a protagonist, Kemp is largely unlikeable and unsympathetic; thus the catharsis that could mitigate pain of this theatrical experience is deeply diminished.
Faced with this unrelenting task, Portland stage director Ron Botting does an admirable job of pacing the play, orchestrating the piercing one-liners, and creating the overall atmosphere of terminal isolation, and he rightly eschews any sentimentality that would obviate Panych's intent. Perhaps it is too much to ask of Botting and his protagonist, Dustin Tucker, to have searched for some means of humanizing Kemp - perhaps some earlier hints of vulnerability and instability in the young man's armor of maladroit misanthropy.Tucker has the unenviable task of delivering what is essentially a two-hour soliloquy - part harangue, part gut-wrenching confession, and he proves himself up to the virtuosic demands of the part. The actor manages both the brutal cynicism of the character as well as the moments of introspection convincingly, though one might wish for a greater variety in vocal delivery and a greater sense of danger in his mercurial mood swings. This is, after all, not only a character who embodies cruelty and callousness of the absurd, but also within a fragile, devastated, gender-confused wreck of a young man, who elicits from the dying Grace the sparks of tenderness.
As Grace, Julie Nelson speaks but a handful of lines, yet she is required to be a full partner in this silent dialogue - a task she accomplishes skillfully. In a small house like Portland Stage, her economical facial expressions and gestures capture the old woman's inner life and win us to her side.
Anita Stewart, once again, creates a meager and gloomy ambiance that aptly conjures up the loneliness of the dying experience. The set ,which consists only of a bed and trunk rotated into different positions, as well as a single window through which the outside world passes, serves to amplify the claustrophobia of the drama. The one tree whose leaves change from fall to winter to spring and back to fall again, as snow and rain drift down, lyrically suggests the passage of time.
Lighting Designer Stephen Jones completes the effect with his subdued palette, and Ben Ferber's sound design effectively contrasts the outside world of the living with the sepulchral quiet of the dying. Susan Thomas' s simple, unobtrusive costumes complete the estimable production values.
Portland Stage's commitment to contemporary plays is to be applauded, as well as the company's willingness to stretch the comfortable limits of audience expectation. Theatre has always been more than just entertainment; at its best it has sought to be hold a glass to human experience and raise larger questions. Vigil certainly does this, and while we may not like what we see and hear, it is certainly worth looking and listening!