One question has to be going through audience’s minds during “Kimberly Akimbo” at the Schoolhouse Theater: How old is Ruth Reid?
For once, this is a question an actress would want you to ask — or at least wonder about. Ms. Reid plays Kimberly, a typical teenager in many ways. She pouts when her father is late to pick her up. She kind of likes Jeff (Israel Gutierrez), the shy classmate who works at Zippy Burger. Playing Dungeons and Dragons, she adores the gore. (“They tore out my throat. Cool!”) Kimberly’s problem is that she has the body of a 60- or 70-year-old woman.
The cause is not a wacky brain transfer like the one in “Freaky Friday” or in “Prelude to a Kiss.” It’s not a child’s wish granted too soon like the one in “Big.” It’s an honest-to-goodness disease similar to progeria, one that causes children to age at four and a half times the normal rate. Average life expectancy is 16, and Kimberly has just reached that birthday.
Would that the shadow of death were her only problem. David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote “Kimberly Akimbo,” which was presented by the Manhattan Theater Club in New York in 2003, knows that no one’s life is simple and that human beings aren’t always that nice. (Consider his other work, like the Pulitzer Prize-winner “Rabbit Hole,” which focused on parental grief over a little boy’s death.) This simultaneously sweet and biting production, ably directed by Raymond Munro, keeps the comedy coming, but it never lets us forget that Kimberly’s parents are seriously deranged.
Or maybe they’re just painfully immature. Pattie (Molly Hale) and Buddy (Brian Hotaling), with their cutest-senior-class-couple names, are probably about half their daughter’s apparent age. Buddy drinks too much and spends a lot of time reflecting on how much excitement he has missed, like seeing the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, by becoming a husband and father. But at least he tries to grasp the nobility of adult life: “Most guys are just guys who work, right?” he says, speaking into a tape recorder to his second, unborn child. “There’s no shame in that.”
Yes, Pattie is pregnant, and she callously predicts, “This one is going to be perfect.” Pattie also has bandaged hands because of carpal-tunnel surgery, Thorazine in the medicine cabinet and, by Act II, a broken leg in a huge cast. She carelessly announces that she’s sure she has cancer and is going to drop dead at any moment, when it’s really Kimberly who isn’t long for this world. By comparison, Pattie’s sister, Debra (Mollie O’Mara), a black-sheep type who has been secretly living in the local library, is a paragon of empathy.
With gentle but deliberately wacky humor, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire forces us to look hard at this blue-collar New Jersey couple. (Buddy works at a gas station and has recently moved the family from Secaucus to Bogota for creepy reasons revealed in Act II.) Selfish parents who don’t even try to understand their children aren’t comic fantasies, of course. They exist all too often in real life. Maybe like Pattie and Buddy, those real parents feel cheated in their own lives and can’t summon the mental energy for genuine caring.
But it’s the daughter you can’t take your eyes off. Watching the white-haired Ms. Reid play Kimberly, you might infer that she is just a particularly youthful woman whose adolescent demeanor has inexplicably hung on for decades. At times, you might even think that she’s a very young actress made up to look older. But if you saw “Appointment With a High-Wire Lady” (also directed by Mr. Munro) at this theater two years ago, you saw Ms. Reid play Kimberly’s mental opposite: an unkempt, institutionalized older woman whose posture and gait say everything about her awful situation in life. (Ms. Reid declined to give her real age. She did say, however, that she had planned on attending Woodstock but had to work that weekend.)
Whatever else this smart, sensitive production of “Kimberly Akimbo” may have to say, Ms. Reid’s performance reminds us that “young at heart” isn’t an empty turn of phrase. Her performance is bright and engaging and inspiring.
The opening image in the Schoolhouse Theater production is of a snowfall in April, a symbol of wintry old age that has come too soon. But then doesn’t it always?
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has a penchant for relying on quirky human failings to get the action rolling in his dramas. In “Fuddy Meers” it was psychogenic amnesia forcing its heroine to face each day with a fresh slate. In “Wonder of the World” it was a husband’s sexual fetishism for Barbie dolls.
In “Kimberly Akimbo,” which is being staged at the Schoolhouse Theater, the blight is dysfunctional family dynamics heightened by a daughter’s disease — she’s growing old at four-and-a-half times the usual rate. At 16, Kimberly looks like a woman well into her seniority, a Benjamin Button in reverse.
Lindsay-Abaire has a gift for infusing metaphor into any pitfall of existence that has his characters taking life detours to accommodate its brutish reality. In the play, Kimberly’s parents harbor a secret about the mother’s new pregnancy that haunts family life since the clan fled Secaucus, N.J., for Bogota, N.J. The secret is yet another family concession to Kimberly’s condition, although one among several that has her complaining volubly, “I’m not dead yet!”
The aging disease, “like progeria without the dwarfism,” is only one problem in a world of disarray around the heroine. Although resigned to an early death, she is nonetheless a model of normalcy in the strife bedeviling her daily life. Her father is a Bible-toting alcoholic who forgets her birthday, is in constant spats with his wife, and hectors kids who he feels are in the Satanic grip of Dungeons and Dragons games.
Kimberly’s mother is a shrew racked with labor pains, a fractured leg, and carpel-tunnel pain in both her bandaged hands. In a rare moment of solicitude for Kimberly, she promises “to be normal.”
Kimberly’s sister, Debra, is a homeless felon and lesbian who plans a scam based upon doctoring checks she steals out of a public mail box she lugs into the home.
Some solace is provided Kimberly by the nerdy Jeff, a suitor smitten with her and fond of anagrams.
Lindsay-Abaire’s play, while engaging, seems to hover somewhere between daytime soap opera fare and lyrical dramas like those authored by Arthur L. Kopit (“Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad “) and Paul Zindel (“The Effect of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds”). You get the feeling that just as the play is about to take you to new levels of understanding, you’re dragged back down again to more humdrum action and themes.
All performers put in accomplished portrayals, but the star of the show is clearly Ruth Reid as Kimberly. She creates a subtly shaded and consistently riveting interpretation of the role. Her transformation into an older woman in disguise for Debra’s scam was startling. Mollie O’Mara provided a gutsy and conniving Debra, while Molly Hale as mother Pattie was a live wire of grousing and elevated decibel levels. Brian Hoteling as father Buddy crafted a skilled combination of inebriation, forgetfulness and being under the thumb of the women around him. Israel Gutierrez as Jeff was a beguilingly lovable suitor and gamester. Kudos to Raymond Munro for his skilled direction.
CROTON FALLS — When was the last time, on screen or on stage, a simple, tentative kiss brought tears to your eyes? It happens in The Schoolhouse Theater’s staging of “Kimberly Akimbo” by David Lindsay-Abaire.
Lindsay-Abaire is the clever, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who has made a name for himself through a rare talent for tackling thorny topics with both pathos and provocative humor.
In this work, his plot conceit is a 16-year-old girl whose genetic disease causes her to age 4-1/2 times faster than normal, so her physiognomy is that of a 70-year-old.
Kimberly Levaco is surrounded on the compact and totally utilitarian Schoolhouse stage by a certifiably wacko mother, Patty, who’s both pregnant and a hypochondriac; a teddy bear of a father, Buddy, who can’t get out of his own way; a crass and criminal but doting Aunt Debra; and geeky classmate and fellow outcast Jeff, who has a thing for anagrams, Dungeons & Dragons and, after a fashion, for Kimberly.
As the title character, despite her senior citizen status, the elegant Ruth Reid physically captures the callowness and cunning maturity of teenage girls in such a way that captivates the audience from the first scene, and never relinquishes control. Her malady notwithstanding, she is both the matriarch and the soul of the household.
Each performer in this stellar ensemble holds his or her own equally well. As service station laborer Buddy, who also is a barfly, Brian Hotaling renders a disarmingly authentic portrayal. He is as good as his acting is effortless.
As the Martha Rayesque mother Patty (a show biz reference for us old-timers), Molly Hale provides comic relief just by her pantomime-influenced presence. It comes as no surprise that the program reveals she was with Chicago’s famed improv troupe Second City.
Mollie O’Mara’s Aunt Debra is a commanding character that’s tough as nails outside and soft as feathers inside.
Israel Guiterrez, as Kimberly’s friend Jeff, is making his debut as a Schoolhouse performer and he is quite the find. His character is pivotal in illuminating Kimberly’s true emotions about her condition — which Reid accomplishes with heartbreaking understatement — and the young actor’s portrayal is never less than thoroughly engaging and matter-of-factly empathetic.
In the hands of Lindsay-Abaire, “Kimberly Akimbo” is akin to a balancing act that manages to hover both precariously and stealthily just this side of politically correct. He has a light touch with conversational dialogue that flows naturally and swiftly, yet is given weight by eccentric characters whose foibles we recognize—in others, perhaps in ourselves—all too readily.
So skip the boob tube one night to see something whose caliber you won’t see on TV. Besides, there’s nothing like live, intimate theater, and you won’t regret discovering The Schoolhouse Theater’s many charms that has earned it acclaim well beyond its environs.
After the Sunday, March 7 performance, Director Raymond Munro, Scenic Designer Ken Larson, Artistic Director Pamela Kareman and General Manager Quinn Cassavale joined the cast onstage for an informal chat with the audience.
Munro, whose deft handling of the show is a major cause for its success, remarked on the hyper-aging condition depicted in the show, noting that he’s nearing 60 and “gradually, imperceptibly slowing down, but it’s happened over 20 years.”
Despite his remarks, let’s hope he continues to brighten the stage with numbers as good as this one for years to come.