Acting dead

Prairie Theatre Exchange revives black comedy and returns 92-year-old Doreen Brownstone to the stage

Bruce Monk

The subject of dying has anchored many an epic production: think Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or Sartre’s No Exit. But perhaps no play has had such fun at the expense of the ghastly subject as Morris Panych’s Vigil, an internationally renown black comedy (Panych and his partner recently travelled to Japan to see it performed). Now, Prairie Theatre Exchange is bringing the play back to the stage.

“It’s very witty and really nasty,” reports Robert Metcalfe, PTE’s artistic director and Vigil’s director, noting that the production first graced the company’s stage in 1997.

Vigil tells the tale of Kemp, an unashamed misanthrope who quits his day job to visit with his dying aunt, Grace. The play’s humour is the darkest of brands, with many a caustic remark directed at Grace (at one point, Kemp asks Grace why she bothers to apply make-up when the mortician will do it for her). Metcalfe reports that Michael Spencer-Davis, who plays Kemp, has fully embraced the sardonic role.

“I’m letting him tap into my personal misanthropic nature,” he jests. “We were just working on that; I just came up from rehearsal. Because it’s driven by his own need for armour against the hurts of his life, that’s why it’s so vicious and sharp. He’s protecting himself. That’s what I’ve talked to Michael about. And just to let loose.”

Doreen Brownstone, the legendary 92-year-old Winnipeg actor, once again handles the role of Grace; she played the character in PTE’s production of the play back in 1997. Metcalfe notes the process to secure Brownstone wasn’t a tough one. About a year-and-a-half ago, she was presented a lifetime achievement award at the Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts, and declared that she was still up for roles. Vigil - Metcalfe says - was a natural fit for her.

“Doreen, even though she only has about 12 lines in the show, is pivotal to the show,” he says. “She’s the point around which everything in the story pivots. She really is a good actor. I was thinking about this last night: she’s worked for 60 years, almost, on the stages in the city. The reason she did that - and the reason she got cast - is because she’s so good.”

Vigil serves as the second part of PTE’s six-play season, one marked by some fairly hefty subject matter. Small Things, the season debut, delved into class issues in a small town, while Life, Death and the Blues will explore immigration and gender. It’s all knitted together, Metcalfe says, by the need of connect and to resolve the epidemic of loneliness in our society.

“At the heart of the play is a notion that in order for life not to be meaningless, you have to connect with other people, and you have to connect with them in a way that’s selfless,” he says. “Over the course of the play, that’s what happens. It’s not necessarily a happy ending, but it’s a satisfying one for both characters, and there’s a real beauty and heart that beats under all this vitriol and jokes about death.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 12 of The Uniter (November 19, 2014)

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