The Santa Maria Civic Theatre welcomes 2018 with "Kimberly Akimbo," an intimate, modern comedy-drama.
The play premiered in Costa Mesa in 2001 and arrived off-Broadway two years later. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is best-known for penning the Pulitzer-winning “Rabbit Hole,” which also became an SMCT production in 2012. Both works take an honest look at families dealing with difficult circumstances. “Kimberly Akimbo” is directed by SMCT regular cast member Lynda Mondragon.
The setting is a working-class New Jersey suburb. It opens with a woman waiting on a bench, shivering from cold. This is the titular Kimberly (the “Akimbo” is explained later,) played by Leslie Franklin. A younger man finally arrives to pick her up, and it's quickly revealed that he is, in fact, her father.
Kim suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes her to age at 4½ times the normal rate. (It's said to be “similar to” real-life disorder progeria). She's just turning 16, which means that physically, she's about 72. On top of that, she comes from a supremely dysfunctional family. Her dad Buddy (Josh Cornell) is an alcoholic who makes promises he doesn't keep. He bickers constantly with mom Pattie (Aiyani Mersai), who's a hypochondriac. Later, Aunt Debra (Alexandra Bristow) shows up ... with a stolen mailbox. All three -- and Patti in particular -- have a comically exaggerated “New Joisey” attitude.
Appearing to be older than her parents, Kim symbolizes a kind of role reversal in the household. For example, every time someone in the family swears, they have to put a nickel in a jar. It's the daughter who comes up with this rule, and the parents who struggle to follow it. (The ever-fuller jar makes for a good sight gag.) Note: The play does not shy away from adult language and themes.
Franklin is totally committed to her role as a teenager. She speaks in a high, soft voice, and is adept at whining or dropping sarcastic barbs. (This seems to be the season for adult actors playing teens in Santa Maria, given PCPA's recent production of “Freaky Friday.”) She creates a character who is sympathetic, but never a victim or a martyr.
Barstow gets some good physical comedy out of her role: a woman at an advanced stage of pregnancy, who can't use her hands due to carpal tunnel surgery. She captures all of Debra's various whims and moods, whether she's sniping, begging to be fed cereal, or thrilling at Kim's outlandish baby name suggestions. Near the end of the show, during an especially emotional moment, she even cries.
Cornell's Buddy is a good comic match for her, and they have a nice long-married repartee. (Cornell is no stranger to Lindsay-Abaire's work, having appeared in SMCT's production of “Rabbit Hole.”) Even when Buddy tries to give his family a “normal” moment -- a birthday cake and a board game to play -- it's at 3 a.m., he's drunk and the cake is lopsided. In a way, this makes it more endearing.
The characters' problems lead to comical moments, but the script also takes them seriously when it needs to. The parents also have secrets -- they desperately want to avoid discussing why they moved from another town. It might have been interesting to hear more details about Kim's life at younger ages -- she mentions that when she was 4 years old, her body was 18. What was that like? But the only backstory that's given focus is the “Why did they move?” mystery.
Things begin to change for Kim when fellow student Jeff (Logan Goodnature) asks her if he can write an essay on her condition. His questions are sometimes insensitive, but it's clearly out of social ineptitude rather than maliciousness. Goodnature's sincere performance helps convey this. Jeff is obsessed with acronyms and Dungeons & Dragons, but Buddy believes the latter is for “Satan worshipers.” He goes into full protective dad mode, but Kim and Jeff become friends, and even begin to develop deeper feelings.
This leads to the question: How do you portray an innocent romance between two teen characters when one of them looks like a much older adult? Fortunately, between the characters' relatively chaste interactions and Franklin's convincing performance, it doesn't feel awkward -- or rather, it feels like the right kind of awkward for two naive teens discovering love.
When Aunt Patti arrives on the scene, she immediately pounces on the couple, trying to rope them into her latest scheme. Mersai gives her an aggressively physical presence and a con artist's charm. High-strung geek Jeff and tough ex-con Patti are the broadest comic archetypes in the play, but the writing and the actors' performances breathe some real life into them.
The ending of the play is somewhat abrupt, though that may be the effect the playwright was going for.
Director Lynda Mondragon also designed the set. The main setting the family's dingy and dated kitchen. The “wallpaper pattern” is even painted to fit Patti's description: “It's like living inside a thermos.” The most impressive prop is the front end of a car, which is wheeled onstage whenever there's a driving scene.
The costumes (uncredited) are mostly normal, modern clothes, selected to fit the characters' personalities. However, there is one particular moment during a D&D game where the costuming provides another amusing sight gag.
If you enjoy watching quirky characters work through a mix of comedy and tragedy, with a few profanities uttered along the way, you'll probably like “Kimberly Akimbo.”