When the lights come up on this deliciously mordant comedy, there’s a look on actor Marco Barricelli’s face that presages the treats in store for us. As the newly arrived nephew, he stands, suitcase in hand, in the doorway, gazing at the pale apparition in the bed, his features frozen into an exquisitely detailed mask of quizzical uncertainty.
Olympia Dukakis, as the frumpy, white-haired old lady with terminal bed-head, returns his look with an equally precise glare of shock and suspicion.
Here are two sublime actors at the top of their game, together again at American Conservatory Theater under the direction of Canadian theater artist Morris Panych in Panych’s oft-produced, 1995 two-hander, “Vigil.”
The burly, handsome Barricelli, a former and much-missed ACT core company member, is an odd but brilliant choice for the bitter, cynical and friendless Kemp, who leaves his low-level bank job in response to a pleading letter from dying Aunt Grace, whom he hasn’t seen in decades — the glamorous auntie he’d once hoped would rescue him from a miserable, neglected childhood.
Cast against type, Barricelli digs deep into the core of this unpleasant character and makes him hilariously, agonizingly believable.
The play unfurls over the course of multiple short scenes in two acts, with an initially completely silent Aunt Grace slowly unthawing in the presence of this vulture-like companion, as he becomes increasingly confessional in his disjointed ramblings.
But Aunt Grace, quietly knitting, does not seem in a hurry to croak. “This knitting of yours — is it a long-term project?” Kemp asks her pointedly. Increasingly frustrated and impatient as the seasons roll by, eagerly anticipating an inheritance, Kemp serves her endless bowls of pudding on a tray while devising various methods of hastening her demise.
Just as Barricelli mines every nuance of Kemp’s bottomless rage and anguish, so too does Dukakis. With only a few lines of text altogether, she registers the most delicate and subtle shifts of mood.
She’s positively luminous, an elfin and endearing figure on Ken MacDonald’s cluttered, angularly distorted set.
Panych has called “Vigil” a satire, but with actors like these, the emotions feel too true to be satirical; rather, this is a slightly hyper-real look at loneliness, aging, and dying, themes unnervingly relevant in today’s society.
“Vigil” is wickedly funny, full of surprises, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays, plus 7 p.m. April 11; closes April 18
Tickets: $10 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org