The latest from As If Theatre Company mixes humor and sadness in an unusual — but familiar — family tale, in which a teenager deals with self-centered family members and a disease that advances her physical age more than four times as quickly as her calendar years. Kimberly Akimbo runs through October 20.
Kimberly’s last name isn’t really “akimbo.” But her stance is increasingly headed that way.
At the center of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo is Kimberly Levaco, a 16-year-old girl whose body thinks she’s 72. She lives in New Jersey with her dad (who’s always drunk), her pregnant mom (who’s always got a new ailment, from diabetes to cancer — most of them invented, it seems) and, eventually, her aunt who seems to pop up out of nowhere. The furthest the family has ever journeyed is the Jersey Shore. And if it’s up to her parents, Kimberly won’t venture much of anywhere.
When we meet Kimberly, she’s all but frozen to a bench in bone-chilling temperatures, after her dad hits the bar and is over two hours late for his promised pickup time. Both parents forget her 16th birthday — a momentous occasion for any teen, but doubly so for Kimberly; the average life expectancy for someone with her condition (it’s something like progeria but with a few different symptoms) is only 16. Kimberly wants it to be one to remember. Instead, it’s one she’d rather forget.
It’s not just her body that’s aging too quickly. It’s not easy having an alcoholic parent, let alone dealing with the rest of the family’s issues; and through most of the play, Kimberly is stuck being the responsible one. She has to dodge her aunt (per her parents’ wishes), then go home to feed her mom following carpal tunnel surgery (apparently from 16 years of filling off-brand Hostess-style cakes), while her dad drinks at the bar. Her mom is obsessed with this latest pregnancy, at Kimberly’s expense (“This one’s gonna be perfect”). And not only must she ignore her dad’s shortcomings, he insists she cover up his drinking to her mom, too.
Her aunt, habitually houseless and with a checkered past, is the only person who seems to show interest in her — but even that takes a selfish turn. The only one, that is, except for Jeff, a very nerdy boy Kimberly’s age, who works at a local fast food drive-thru. His chief interests are role-playing games and anagrams, both of which figure prominently into the show. (One of the most amusing scenes involves rare family bonding over a farcically bad game of Dungeons & Dragons; and the play derives its title from an anagram he concocted from Kimberly Levaco’s name — “cleverly akimbo.”)
At the start, Kimberly is clearly withering, and it’s sad. Her time with Jeff — who might be her only friend — and his unwavering interest in her, seems to liven her spirit and empower her to do more than just get by. Through farce, cold truth, and some witty moments, it’s a joy to watch Kimberly find her own in this sweet family dramedy. (“Family” because it’s about family — but don’t bring your family unless everyone’s fine with some blue humor and plenty of cussing.)
There are no weak links in this cast. As Kimberly, Rebecca O’Neil is a winning lead, and gives us someone to root for. Seamus C. Smith as Jeff has good chemistry with her; and maintains an appropriately awkward energy without it going over the top. Christie Lynn Devoe and Josh Kibbey, as Kimberly’s parents (Pattie and Buddy) are perfectly wretched — it’s easy to feel sympathy for Kimberly’s plight with them — but human, too. They’re not villains. It’s a delicate balance to pull off.
Among a strong cast, the show-stealer is Molly Hall as Kimberly’s flighty aunt, Debra. Debra is a lot of things — the fun aunt (who brings presents), the cool aunt (decked out in enviable ’80s and ’90s rock band t-shirts), and the attentive aunt, the only one who seems to care about Kimberly. But above all, she’s a grade-A manipulator — and Hall does a fantastic job selling all of these traits.
And it’s Aunt Debra who’s the turning point in Kimberly’s life, too, finally convincing her — however unintentionally — to stand up for herself and live a little. The characters are at once worthy allies and adversaries, and are well-matched in this cast.
Strong direction from Cindy Giese French — who clearly gets the comedy and recurring tragedy of this family — ties it all together. The set design (by Megan Twamley), putting several rooms on a small stage, is efficient and effective; and devices like the drive-thru window, rolling along across the stage, are creative and funny touches.
Kimberly Akimbo is a strong closer to an ambitious inaugural season that’s included one by Sarah Ruhl and a unique local playwrights festival (see NWT’s coverage here). If the phrase “community theatre” can be turned as something other than an artistic dig, surely it’s right for northend newcomer As If Theatre, founded by French, Amy Gentry (who designed costumes in this production), and Hall. Since arriving just this year, the company has figured out the mix of theatre done well, while feeling thoroughly a part of the community that surrounds it.
Kimberly Akimbo runs through 10/20 at the Kenmore Community Club. Tickets $25, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, though the main restrooms are not. The performance on Friday, 10/18, will be ASL interpreted.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.