Dark humor in PSC’s Vigil

 Waiting for mortality
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 8, 2013

EMOTING TO A MUTE AUDIENCE Dustin Tucker as misanthrope Kemp. | photo by Aaron Flacke 

You can’t say that misanthropic Kemp (Dustin Tucker) isn’t a dutiful nephew, coming as he does to the bedside of elderly, lonely Grace (Julie Nelson). But neither is he all that gracious. His estranged aunt has written to him that she’s near the end, and Kemp has indeed come — but he’s hoping that “near” proves sooner than later. An agonizing waiting game ensues, in Morris Panych’s Vigil, a dark comedy about an odd couple and an odder communion, produced by Portland Stage Company under the direction of Ron Botting.

When Kemp first arrives in Grace’s decrepit old house — represented with notes of Edward Gorey in its dimly lit set of door, window, bed, and high wall of fusty blue-and-rose stripes — he is already passive-aggressive. “I didn’t expect for you to be pleased to see me,” he announces. “No one ever is.” The white-haired old lady has nothing to say to this, or indeed to anything, for most of the play, so Kemp has plenty of opportunities to indulge his awkward, hostile, self-pitying sarcasm. So nigh does he believe her time that he’s only brought a few changes of clothes, and resents it when he has to do laundry. He rolls his eyes, callously brings up her will and organ-donation plans, and then slowly, gradually, opens up his own lifetime of wounds.

The humor in Kemp’s caustic rants and confessionals is heightened by the production’s delicious staging, which has tinges of a Gothic cartoon: An elaborate clanking sound accompanies his every ascent and descent of the staircase; time passes with an amplified ticking that Poe would have appreciated; and the bed itself rotates like the hand of a clock, scene by scene, to offer us ever-circling views of the two of them in this one room. Time also passes outside the window, as a branch grows and sheds leaves, and arresting visual moments occur as Kemp takes moments to look out, by turns, into rain and snow. One beautiful scene employs the simplest staging, as Kemp confides on and on to Grace in nearly complete darkness.

Kemp’s character is written with lots of slapstick and caricature; he is a grotesque of sour gallows-humor, and so well-practiced at his own unhappiness as to be, quite consciously, a self-parody. As he prepares in advance for her memorial service (to the strains of “Paper Moon”), he remarks to her that only so much can be said about sitting around all day eating butterscotch pudding and going to the bathroom. Tucker is a great one for such bitter, barbed comedy; this is the same actor who revels in the debauched humor of The Santaland Diaries, and there’s more than a touch of Sedaris to his Kemp. He soars to heights of outrageous comic cruelty, his pride and self-loathing in fully visible and brutal battle, and soon, is using the same hard irony to reveal the horrors of Kemp’s own history.

For her part, Nelson’s mostly silent Grace hints at a range of reactions with the slightest shifts of her face, as eyes roll or widen at Kemp’s insults or revelations, or as her sullen stare yields to a nearly impish hint of smile.

As Kemp’s comfort with and affection for Grace grow despite himself, Tucker does fine, measured work in stripping away Kemp’s act, revealing him in moments of quiet, perfectly bare hurt or tenderness. The arc that he makes of Kemp’s cartoonish unhappiness opens up into a subtle, moving portrait of a man learning his own humanity.

Vigil | by Morris Panych | Directed by Ron Botting | Produced by Portland Stage Company | through November 17 | 207.774.0465

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