Ben Miles Reviews - Theater


Vigil, Morris Panych’s 1995 play now onstage at Los Angles’ Mark Taper Forum, through December 18, is a cruel comedy laden with unnerving action and disquieting dialog. Schematically directed by Panych, the show opens with arrival of Kemp at the home of the bedridden Grace, his terminally ailing aunt.

It’s been three decades since Kemp has seen his Aunt Grace, but suddenly Kemp has left his banking job and has taken it upon himself to provide a sort of hospice care for Grace. Though Grace has requested it, Kemp’s motivation as a would-be caretaker is based solely on his desire to be the heir to Grace’s will. Not that Grace has much to offer her inheritor. She lives in apparent urban squalor; confined to a junk-strewn room, she whiles the way the hours in silence.

Kemp, on the other hand, is verbose, self-absorbed, and quite difficult to like. With Kemp making disheartening comments such as “Let’s not talk about anything depressing,” followed by, “Do you want to be cremated?” he is kept so obviously out of range of compassion and so void of empathy that it’s our natural inclination to despise him. And that’s where much of the problem lies in this two-character play: The despicable Kemp has the lion’s share of dialogue in this two-hour (with one intermission) production; so much so that the script actually amounts to a running harangue of a monologue delivered by the unenviable Kemp.

The design quality of Vigil is high. Ken MacDonald’s costuming, as well as his slightly abstract scenic display is effectively morose. The assisted-suicide contraption supposedly constructed by Kemp is a Rube Goldberg sort of sight-gag. Cricket S. Myers’ sound motif is appropriately evocative, as is Meg Roe and Alessandro Julian’s original music and various acoustic contributions. Additionally, Alan Brodie and Robert Hahn’s lighting is indispensible to the proceedings.

The issue is with Panych’s monotonous conceit. Kemp, as characterized by Marco Barricelli, bellows, moans, and berates Grace with a vengeance that can only be described as elder abuse. Kemp, as portrayed by Barricelli, appears irredeemable. Nevertheless, those audience members who remain for the show’s duration (several theatergoers left early) are stuck with this insufferable misanthrope.

The tragedy of this misguided staging exists in the casting of the singular Olympia Dukakis in the nearly thankless and mostly mute role of Grace. Though Dukakis brings a sly wit to this generally stealth part, it still seems to be a large waste of her enormous talent.

Vigil last about 120 minutes and the payoff is a one-note joke and a couple of surprise comments by Dukakis’ character. I wish I had my minutes back.

Vigil continues at the Mark Taper Forum – 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles – through December 18. Show times are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Sunday evening performances are at 6:30 p.m. (with no nighttime show on Sundays, December 4 and 18). For reservations, dial (213) 628 – 2772. For online ticketing and further information, visit