The most indelible image from actress Kathy Bates’ career comes from the 1990 movie Misery, where she’s the crazed fan and James Caan is the bedridden victim. In Morris Panych’s Vigil, which just opened at Armory Square’s Redhouse, 201 S. West St., the genders are reversed. Bedridden Grace (Caroline Fitzgerald) is tormented by nephew Kemp (John Bixler). And this time the tormentor makes his intentions plain: “Would you like to be cremated?” he asks. The biggest difference in Vigil is that the show’s a dark, dark comedy where the laughs don’t end but lead to some surprises.
Somewhere in rural Canada, poor Grace lies in a shabby upstairs bedroom. (Scenic designer Tim Brown’s atmospheric set comes with the kind of wallpaper they haven’t sold in decades.) Childless and friendless, Grace has sent for Kemp to console her in her last days. Outwardly attentive, Kemp has quit his job at a bank so he could be at her bedside. There is no pretense of sweetness between them, however. Kemp muses, “All those days I thought you had forgotten me—and you actually had.”
Kemp arrives with an out-of-fashion, bright red, hard-sided suitcase, which he keeps in the room with him, signaling that he expects Grace to take care of her business soon. This would allow him to inherit what she has left and then get on with his own life. The first few short scenes are punctuated with blackouts, implying Kemp and Grace are not in continuous dialogue, despite what we’re hearing and seeing. Through a window next to Grace’s bed, Kemp keeps making observations on the changes of season, a more effective device than showing a calendar with the wind blowing its pages.
For the first 45 minutes all the dialogue runs one way, from the loquacious Kemp to the silent Grace. (Spoiler alert: She eventually gets some words out that are worth waiting for, but they don’t give away any secrets.) Kemp’s continuing, outrageous aggression feels like a verbal equivalent of a very old comedy dialogue, the Punch-and-Judy show. The comedy here comes not from a counter-aggression, like Judy’s, but in Grace’s endlessly inventive reactions.
Although most of her dialogue would fit on a Post-It note,
Fitzgerald’s Grace must work as hard, if not harder, than Bixler’s Kemp.
Fitzgerald and director
William Morris have collaborated for a long time and know that Grace can never give the same roll of the eyes twice. When Vigil opened in Los Angeles two years ago, Grace was a role for Olympia Dukakis, who memorably got a huge laugh with a joke about death in the 1987 movie version of John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck.
All the great subjects of comedy, aestheticians have observed, are not in and of themselves funny: alcoholism, mothers-in-law, mistaken identity, in flagrante delicto and death. Once playwright Panych has won us over with the audacity of his concept, Kemp’s outrageous lack of compassion, he has given himself the problem of making this increasingly interesting for nearly two hours. Ratcheting up the zingers works for a start: “I’m concerned about your health these past few days: It seems to be improving.” This escalates until Kemp introduces a do-it-yourself suicide machine, with a lethal brick and an electrocutionist’s helmet.
On another track Panych continues to reveal to us what a hideous misfit Kemp is, adding this to the list with alcoholism and mothers-in-law. Not only is he happy to be rid of the bank, a venue for mutual hate, but he’s been walking around with debilitating emotional pain since childhood: rejection from his hateful mother, abuse from other children for being a sissy and a mentally deranged father. “I don’t like people,” Kemp growls. “It’s not just that I can take them or leave them. I really don’t like them. Children, of course, are just a smaller, stickier variety.” In a tribute to Morris’ direction and John Bixler’s delivery, this little squeal of misanthropy gets a huge laugh.
Along with delivering 97 percent of the lines, Bixler drives the action with quiet mania. In appearance he could pass for an insurance salesman or, yes indeed, a bank clerk, but his obsessiveness runs on Road Runner-level heat. At the Redhouse he has been seen in last year’s Odysseus DOA and [sic], and he’ll be back again for the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins next season.
Upping the ante further in the second act, Panych introduces some music, starting with some plangent chords from Chopin’s Funeral March via an old LP played on a portable phonograph and also a truly haunting rendition of the 1947 hit “Always” by the Ink Spots, mordantly ironic here. Credit sound designer Jeremy Johnston for these touches. Following this Kemp remembers the childhood humiliation of having to learn to play the accordion, an instrument the other kids laughed at. He serenades Grace with a one-fingered version of “Camptown Races.”
Vigil opened in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1995, and knocked around Canada before opening in New York in autumn 2009. Canadian culture, Bryan Adams and Margaret Atwood excepted, usually has a hard time breaking into the U.S. market, and so Panych has become better known abroad, in London and especially the Edinburgh Festival, than he is in the United States.
Panych, born in 1952, frequently appears as a talking head on Canadian television, often as a vocal gays rights advocate. His creation of Kemp is best seen as asexual rather than a scapegoat for Focus on the Family homophobia. In recent years he has been summering in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where in 2011 he directed an innovative revival of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival.
The appearance of director William Morris, late of the Le Moyne College Drama Department, at the Redhouse venue takes the company back to its roots. Morris was a regular with Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse, the Redhouse’s corporate predecessor. Current Redhouse executive artistic director Stephen Svoboda favors florid innovation, as with his own Odysseus DOA, Batboy: The Musical or the recent Twelfth Night, long on farce. In comparison, director Morris looks like a model of classical restraint. His handling of Morris Panych’s Vigil is literate, incisive, edgy and lots of good, naughty fun.
This production runs through Saturday, May 12. See Times Table for information.