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Vigil at the Vancouver Playhouse

Vancouver, BC: Since I saw the first production of Vigil at the Arts Club Theatre more than a decade ago I have probably seen a couple of hundred more plays, the details of most of which have been lost in the fog of the passage of time. However when I first read that Vigil ,written by Morris Panych, was to be part of the 2007/2008 Playhouse season I found I could clearly recall the set and the bitter-sweet plot of this play.

So why did this particular work leave such indelible traces in my otherwise not so precise memory? Maybe because Panych's acerbic black comedy forces one to examine primeval fears: of helplessness, loneliness and death. There are few situations sadder than dying alone. But waiting alone and helpless for death to come, would definitely be one. So much so that, as Panych suggests, any human companion, even one who is bent on helping you depart this life before you are actually quite ready to die, is preferable to interminable days of solitude.

In Vigil, Grace (Jennifer Phipps) is in that situation. The entire action takes place in Grace's apartment where, day and night, she is comfortably ensconced in her bed. Kemp (Morris Panych) is a self-absorbed bachelor who has received a letter from his aunt who he has not seen for thirty years, telling him of her impending death and asking him to visit. However when Kemp arrives at Grace's apartment for the supposed deathbed visit, Grace does not oblige him by dying in a timely fashion. Kemp continues to see to her needs as months go by and seasons change through autumn and winter. His inept attempts to hasten her death become increasingly ambivalent as, despite himself, he begins to make an emotional connection with her. For most of the play Grace is silent, yet with the smallest changes in expression, Phipps lets us share Grace's thoughts and emotions.

Since its premiere at the Belfry and the Arts Club, Vigil has been widely performed, but this is the first time that playwright Panych plays the part of Kemp. It must be an interesting experience for a writer to play a character that he created a decade earlier. I wonder how the original lines read to him now with so many intervening experiences both as writer and director in tghe decade since it was written.

Before I saw this performance I wondered if the emotional impact of the play would be lessened by having seen it before and thus being aware of the twists in the plot. But in truth I found it as darkly humorous and poignant as I remembered from before.