November 3, 2013

Theater Review: Dark humor enlivens end-of-life ‘Vigil’

The Portland Stage production treats a heartbreaking situation with wit.

By April Boyle

In the end, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from. We all have a date with the Grim Reaper. “Vigil,” by Morris Panych, takes a humorously dark look not only at death and dying, but at how we live.

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WHAT: “Vigil” by Portland Stage

WHERE: 25A Forest Ave., Portland

DATE REVIEWED: Friday; play runs through Nov. 17

TICKETS: $40-$45 (discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10 or more)

CONTACT: 774-0465,

The notion of family has changed dramatically over the years. In today’s society, most Americans spend more time with their “work family” than their real family. It’s commonplace to ship off the dying and the old to hospitals, or nursing homes, where many languish alone until their deaths.

For those like “Vigil’s” Kemp, the neglect begins much sooner.

Panych wrote “Vigil” after overhearing a nurse inform her dying patient why none of her family could be there with her. The heartbreaking emotion of that event echoes throughout the play, but “Vigil” also contains a healthy dose of levity.

Portland Stage’s production, directed by Ron Botting, stars Dustin Tucker as Kemp and Julie Nelson as Grace.

It’s a minimalist production, with a one-room set. Despite being scaled-down, Anita Stewart’s set, like the play itself, has depth, and is very expressive.

Rain and snow fall outside the bedroom window, and the leaves on the tree reflect the changing of the seasons. Inside the room, a rotating bed marks the passage of time, like hands ticking on a clock.

There is a lot of time lapse to mark in “Vigil.” When Kemp receives a letter from his estranged aunt indicating she is dying, he quits his job and rushes to be with her in her final hours. As her only living relative, he feels it is his obligation.

He arrives in the middle of the night to find Grace in bed and begins what he expects to be a brief death vigil. But hours turn in days, weeks, months and a year.

All the while, Kemp callously plans Grace’s funeral arrangements, and even entertainingly toys with ideas for hastening her demise.

Like the vigil, the role of Kemp is a marathon part. The first act of the two-act play is an hour long.

Both characters are on stage for most of the duration, but Grace utters only two words during the first act, requiring Kemp to fill the silence with an ongoing monologue that is both amusing and revealing.

Tucker is well cast as Kemp. He impressively delivers fast-paced rants without missing a beat, and punctuates his character’s droll quips with a diverting array of full-body comedic antics.

He has a knack for showcasing absurdity in serious situations, which garnered him his share of laughs Friday.

But under the laughs, Tucker slyly revealed his character’s underlying pain and ultimate transformation in Act Two.

Given Grace’s limited dialogue, Nelson must communicate through facial expressions and body language for the bulk of her performance.

She succeeds in speaking volumes with wry expressions, raised eyebrows, rolling eyes and shrugging shoulders. Countless emotions flash across her face, inciting both laughs and sympathy.

“Vigil” is packed with witty dialogue and fun plot surprises.

In the London West End program for “Vigil,” Panych dedicated the play “to all who have died and all who’ve not yet got around to it.”

The play delivers a twofold satirical and touching look at life and death while reminding the audience of the importance of compassion for all.


April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:


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