Teenage Kimberly is once again on the curb of the ice-skating rink waiting for her dad to pick her up. That it is 10:30 p.m. and the rink closed at 8 and that it is the middle of winter in Bogota, New Jersey is bad enough; but soon-to-be-sixteen Kimberly has the body of someone four-and-a-half times her age (suffering from the rare disease, progeria). A young girl who went through menopause four years earlier and whose average life expectancy is coming to an end does not have the time or the bodily constitution to be waiting for a dad who once again stopped first at the local pub.
Altarena Playhouse presents David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2000-written play, Kimberly Akimbo, the source of the now-more-well-known musical of the same name which won five Tony Awards in 2022, including Best Musical and a Best Book of a Musical for Lindsay-Abaire. The play, which can best be categorized as a dramedy, is the often hilarious, often heart-breaking story of Kimberly’s life in a family where ‘dysfunction’ is not a strong enough word to describe her day-to-day environment.
Buddy is Kimberly’s dad who in fact most days makes a beeline from his day job at the Chevron station to somewhere in the vicinity of a beer or a Jack Daniels bottle. Peter Marietta plays a Buddy we actually want to like; he often has an easy-going nature, dons a big smile, and can be quite loving and affectionate around his only daughter. But there are too many times when he stumbles once again into a drunken and/or hung-over outrage, leading to an explosive tirade of expletives. Just as when he forgets to pick her up at the ice rink, such outbursts usually lead once again to an apology and a promise to take her “next Saturday” to Six Flags Wild Safari – a promise only to be broken yet one more time even after Kimberly’s face for a moment brightens up in hopes that this time, he means it.
But whatever issues Kimberly might have with her dad, Allison Gamlen’s portrayal of mom, Patti, makes her dad seem a saint. Patti is a hypochondriac to the max and is 99.99% self-centered. Currently, both hands and arms are bound in bandages (supposed carpel-tunnel syndrome); and she claims she has cancer, diabetes, and even a chipped tooth. Patti is genuinely pregnant and spends a good portion of her day recording messages for her baby someday to hear since she assumes she will be soon dead. The focus on her own imminent death allows her to ignore the inevitable and probable near-future death of her truly diseased daughter, a girl she largely ignores except when she needs Kimberly to feed her (since her hands are bound).
With a voice and the mannerisms of a girl in her mid-teens but with a body that clearly is in reality decades older than the girl she portrays, Jamison Vaughn impressively and convincingly is a sixteen-year-old Kimberly going on seventy-something. Her Kimberly has the teen tendencies to hang out in her room, to blush and flutter when thinking about a possible first kiss, and to be both responsive and ignoring around her parents; but when she walks, she often does so with the speed, pains, and limps of a woman that could be her own grandmother. And much likened to her appearance but not her actual age, her level-headed, studious, and ever-curious persona is the nearest thing there is to an adult in this household.
While waiting for a takeout order with her dad at the local Zippy Burger, into Kimberly’s life has come the order-taker, Jeff, a classmate whom – like her – all the other kids at school either ignore or tease. Anagram-whiz Jeff (Rowen Cole Weeramantry) wants to interview Kimberly about her disease for a school assignment; and against her dad’s wishes, she agrees. The two outcasts soon create a bond of almost inseparability. Theirs is a relationship that to a casual observer would appear strange (given their physical and seeming age differences); but in the hands of these two excellent actors, it seems as natural, as fun, and sometimes as wild and wooly as any two teen pals might have.
But David Lindsay-Abaire does not stop there. Into this rather strange mixture of characters sneaks in (literally) Debra, Patti’s ex-con sister who most recently has been “living in a squat” (an abandoned house) and in the woods in a tent. Debra once lived in the family’s basement in Secaucus before something happened that caused them to escape suddenly and unannounced both her and the town, leaving no forwarding address to anyone – especially to Debra. But like a sleuth on a mission, Debra has found Kimberly with Jeff in the library (where she’s been living a few days until Kimberly showed up, whom she knew loves books). Debra now just wants to know the family’s new address so that she can once again park herself in the basement – this time bringing a stolen U.S. mailbox and some containers of unknown chemicals.
Caroline Schneider comes close to stealing the show each time her rough-shod, butch-mannered, metal-pierced Debra steps onto the stage. Even compared to the oft-swearing Patti and Buddy (who begin filling jars of nickels as a Kimberly-imposed penalty for their overflow of curse words), Debra is exceptionally crude and crass – and outrageously funny in being so. Her Debra has a scheme to make some quick cash to get herself down to a much-warmer-than-Jersey Florida; and she has her eyes on Kimberly and Jeff to make it happen. What she does not realize, these teens are pretty damn smart and have their own dreams of escaping Bogata, their classmates, and their families … and the impending horror of Kimberly’s disease.
Dana Anderson directs this talented cast of five through scenes that alternate between the family’s modest home (with its Scottish-looking wallpaper in the otherwise bland kitchen and a teen’s room full of posters and not much else), the town library, and a car consisting of two chairs and a steering wheel – all designed by Tom Curtin (set) and Vicki Kagawan (properties). Scene changes are sometimes a bit disruptive in sound and length to the flow of the play, made so partly due to the closeness of the audience to the floor-level stage.
There are parts of David Lindsay-Abaire’s script that also drag a bit or seem unnecessary. An extended scene of playing Dungeons and Dragons adds little to the story or character development, for example; and after a while, Patti’s recordings and her incessant whining and self-pity become wearing. But fortunately, the playwright has given us Debra, and this Altarena production has provided us Caroline Schneider. Add in the Playhouse’s Kimberly and Jeff; and there are plenty of laughs, sighs, and maybe a couple of tears to keep us as audience quite entertained.
Rating: 3.5 E
Kimberly Akimbo continues through February 25, 2024, at the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA. Tickets are available online at https://www.altarena.org .
Photo Credits: Grizzly De Haro