Morris Panych’s “Vigil” sneaks up on you. At the outset it’s peggable as a snarky black comedy in which a distant relative torments his old aunt to encourage her to drop dead. The baiting is borderline ugly, though the laughs come fast and furious. Suddenly, just about when you’ve had enough of this creep and the whole tacky business, some stylish twists worthy of a master illusionist transform play, production and the entire evening into something rather wonderful. Those willing to meet this import from San Francisco’s ACT halfway aren’t likely to regret or forget it.
As portrayed by Bay Area favorite Marco Barricelli, the hapless, doughy nephew Kemp is decidedly hard to take. “Let me tell you, it isn’t easy making yourself so resoundingly unpopular,” the asexual loner muses. “You really have to work at it.”
Work at it he does, through 37 brief, barbed blackouts. This walking advertisement for self-loathing loathes everybody else even more, starting with the parents: “Mother never did very much for me, her hands were usually pretty full. What with the cigarette and the glass of scotch.”
Auntie was no prize, either. “You looked at me,” Kemp remembers of her sole childhood visit, “as if you were studying a stool sample.” Clearly, he’s come to her dumpy apartment not to praise Aunt Grace but to bury her: “You’re an old woman with dirty hair….Let’s not talk about anything depressing, all right? Do you want to be cremated?”
The guy is relentless — “Why are you putting on makeup? Why don’t you let the mortician do that?” — and since the object of the vitriol is the glowing, gray-haired Olympia Dukakis, one of America’s most beloved actresses, Barricelli may be taking his life into his hands in assuming this part.
Yet the character is not without endearment. He wheels out a couple of elaborate, homemade “suicide machines” should Grace decide to take the hint but gets caught in his own traps as surely as Wile E. Coyote. As it turns out, such moments are essential to the about-face Panych pulls off later on.
And the angelic Dukakis’ character has a devilish or at least a calculating side, conveyed despite an almost complete absence of dialogue. Her sidelong looks at her oafish nephew, and her tiptoed activities whenever he steps out for a moment, set up the agenda Aunt Grace has going on as well.
Barricelli is so powerful and Dukakis so (seemingly) vulnerable that outraged audiences may reject this world as a textbook example of elder abuse. They would do well to study Ken MacDonald’s wildly off-kilter set, whose windows and doorways and furniture, all at cockeyed angles like a Dali painting, signal what Panych is up to as scribe and equally daring helmer.
By the time “Vigil” comes to its astonishing close, there is more compassion and grace — no pun intended — wrapped up on the Taper stage than in any other attraction currently in town.