Openly gay Canadian playwright Morris Panych mines some unlikely humor out of the subjects of illness, death and loneliness in “Vigil,” presented by Lantern Theater Company through June 12.
In the dark but heartfelt comedy, middle-aged curmudgeon Kemp quits his job and travels aross the country after receiving a letter from his aunt — so he can ready her for death. A series of outrageous misunderstandings and turns follow, leading to a surprising finish.
Panych said he was inspired to write the story after a visit to a hospital.
“My partner’s mother was in the hospital,” he recounted. “She was sharing a room with another woman, a very old woman. We could see the woman but there was a candy-striper volunteer in the room telling her that her nephew and her family couldn’t come and visit her from England and she was crying. It was an awful scene and I remember leaving the hospital thinking how awful it was for a person to be left alone at the end of their life. That’s where this story begins.”
Yes, we know. It sounds kind of bad: Witnessing someone’s moment of ultimate despair and filing it away in your mind to later turn it into a comedy. But Panych knows what he’s doing. The playwright, actor and director has written over 20 plays that have been produced across Canada, Britain and the United States and won some of Canada’s highest honors for playwriting.
“It was a way for me to express my own conflicted feeling about my parents getting older and how I deal with that, and also how we deal with that as a society and sometimes the tragic stories that are involved there,” Panych said about the somewhat-morbid origins of “Vigil.” “That’s how I write. I write comedies. I’m telling you a very dark story, but that was the inspiration story for it. I tried to extrapolate that into a kind of bittersweet comedy because that’s the nature of how I write plays. It was never going to be a serious play. I don’t think it is as effective to write a serious play about that subject as it is to write a comedy, because comedy has much more contrast and it’s so much more shocking. It appeals to people’s sense of frustration and this story is very macabre. People really respond to that because they secretly feel all those feelings this character expresses in the play or worries about them or feels guilty about them.”
Panych added that Kemp’s character originally appears to be motivated by greed but, as the story progresses, you realize he is just as fragile a character as his aunt.
“People often say he’s motivated by the possibility of inheriting something, but as soon as you see how she lives and what her life is, there’s no possibility of inheriting anything. He’s not there for the money. He actually becomes the central question of the play: What is his motivation for staying? It’s the secret unspoken truth about that character. He needs somebody as much as she does. For the first time in his life, he has real human contact because he is a misanthrope and a person who has lived by himself for a long, long time. And not happily.”
Lantern Theater Company presents “Vigil” through June 12 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St. For more information or tickets, visit lanterntheater.org or call 215-829-0395.