While “Vigil,” the latest play by Morris Panych, is the newest Canadian contribution to a growing dramatic literature concerned with AIDS, it is also one of the few scripts on the subject to step so far beyond the confines of its inspiration as to barely connect with it, at least on a textual level.
The subtext is another story. The savage and dark satirical edge at the heart of all of Panych’s writing is fueled these days by death watches over close friends, several of them bright lights in Canada’s theater community. So it comes as no surprise that pain inspires the laughs in this story about a bank clerk summoned to his aunt’s bedside after not seeing her for 30 years, to wait out her impending death.
While AIDS informs the play, something else actually sparked it; a moment in a hospital during which Panych overheard a nurse telling an older woman that various relatives had written to say they were sorry they couldn’t be there. The nurse then seemed surprised when her patient began to cry and awkwardly offered to dry her eyes.
Isolation in the face of death, often the fate of the elderly and AIDS patients, is what gave birth to “Vigil,” and in other heads this would undoubtedly have been the stuff of tragedy. But Panych — whose other stage writing includes “Last Call,” a grim and hilarious post-nuclear-holocaust cabaret, and “7 Stories,” a tale of suicide that takes place on the window ledge of an office building — turns it into satire.
“Is this knitting of yours a long-term project?” asks the nephew in frustration as his aunt refuses to bow out of this life while seasons pass and he finds himself filling the role of nursemaid and companion. The nephew, played with skill and passion by Stratford Festival veteran Brian Tree, is a nasty piece of work, but then the aunt (another Stratford actor, Joyce Campion) is not exactly an easygoing soul herself. Their growing relationship and a surprise plot twist keep the viewer hooked.
Written in short, snappy scenes connected by Ian Rye’s engaging soundscape and played out on Ken MacDonald’s wonderfully wonky and moody set, “Vigil” is essentially a monologue. Campion’s almost mute performance is luminous, and ultimately it is her face, contorted and alive with emotion, that resonates long after the curtain comes down.
There are some flaws in the playitself, notably several points at which it seems to end and doesn’t; these need to be pulled together into a single, more powerful conclusion. But Panych’s unerring instinct for the stage and storytelling carry him past the occasional awkward spot.
More problematic is the casting of Tree in a role to which he is not entirely suited. Sheer force of personality and acting technique almost get him by, but the role cries out for a campy, bitchy delivery that is absent from Tree’s performance. As a result, this production of “Vigil” is often funny and occasionally touching, where it could have been hilarious and profoundly moving.