Happy returns

ACT mounts Morris Panych's likeable Vigil

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER "I didn't know you were still alive" is an unflattering salute to a long-lost relative, especially one on her deathbed. But it's one of the nicer things to come from estranged nephew Kemp (Marco Barricelli) as he arrives at the home of his, as it turns out, interminably terminal aunt Grace (Olympia Dukakis). In American Conservatory Theater's production of Vigil, the 1995 play from leading Canadian playwright-director Morris Panych (The Overcoat), a morbid yet gentle comedy of mismatched loners and reluctant roommates also marks, in its cast and playwright, a series of happy returns to the Geary stage.

After 30 years without contact of any kind, duty dictates that Kemp attend to his dying aunt as her sole surviving relative. In the decades since last seeing her, the once lonely child Kemp has become a 40ish misanthrope, without friends and with what he reports as a decidedly asexual bent (despite the promising homoeroticism of an upbringing spent in dresses supplied by a willful mother with a yen for daughters).

Grace, seeming at times rather spry for someone at death's door, also seems not to be able to speak, which Kemp no doubt considers a blessing. Utterly caught up in his own self to be seemingly incapable of the most basic tact, let alone empathy, Kemp reels off the details of the funeral he's planned, including a nifty notion about what to do with her ashes, while giving her brusque encouragement not to hang around on his account. Grace, for her part, takes these machinations and recommendations with slightly addled good nature, clearly not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, no matter how large it might be.

Grounded in the verbal-gestural dialogue that Barricelli and Dukakis mount with such accomplished ease, the initial short scenes in Vigil have about them the gleefully sardonic urbanity of a New Yorker cartoon, bracketed by the "wonk wah" effect of a not-too-rapid blackout. But there's a built-in need to escalate such a dynamic for momentum's sake, and the animated humor can occasionally skirt the Warner Bros. end of the spectrum, though not without a certain cheeky flair. At one point, Kemp, possessed by impatience and channeling Rube Goldberg and Jack Kevorkian in equal measure, wheels out a makeshift euthanizer — a coarse contraption composed of a few choice household items held in taut suspension by a scaffolding of two-by-fours, hinges and strings, with helpful options for the user involving electrocution or bludgeoning, as the mood might strike.

Matching the mischievous tone precisely is scenic designer and longtime Panych collaborator Ken MacDonald's loft apartment, with its soiled half-papered industrial windows and ramshackle furnishings. The whole thing is tellingly askew, expansive yet intimate, gloomily dilapidated yet airy as a whimsical line drawing.

The situation and the witty half-mute dialogue sustain the first act well enough, but what comes in the second act should ideally take us somewhere unexpectedly further. Here Vigil only halfway succeeds, although the major plot twist is nicely managed by all. Much of the tone and comic strategy of the first act otherwise continue forward, at least until the final scenes. And while it's far from unpredictable that Kemp and Grace's fraught anti-aunty-relationship would resolve into something more meaningful and healthy for both, Panych's route there can at moments feel forced, a bit too "written." Nevertheless, the actors movingly infuse a respectable measure of poignancy and, sure enough, grace to the play's final turn, which neatly turns grand topics and outsized characters toward something as truly miraculous as it is utterly commonplace, a quiet little understated metamorphosis.

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