Remember Mary Hartman? She was the title character in a TV sitcom of the late 1970s. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a satire of soap operas. Norman Lear, who conceived it, also created mega-hits like All in the Family. Despite Lear's spectacular track record, however, the networks wouldn't touch Mary Hartman. They thought it was too weird -- not only because of the situations, but also because of the attitude of the actors, who played with a deadpan earnestness.
I bring up Mary Hartman because if you liked Mary, there's a good chance you'll like Kimberly. Kimberly is the title character in Southern Rep's first post-Katrina offering, Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsey-Abaire. The play is plenty weird, but maybe comic weirdness is just what we need in this battered city. At any rate, Kimberly is a 15-year-old suffering from a rare genetic disease called Progeria. Kimberly ages at four-and-a-half times the normal rate. During the play, we see Kimberly and her parents celebrate her 16th birthday. Their joy is clouded, however, because the life expectancy of children with Progeria just happens to be 16 years.
This is dark comedy with a vengeance.
Part of what holds our interest in Kimberly is the suspense of how such a bizarre tale will unfold, so I will be chary of the plot. However, here are a few glimpses to give a sense of the world of the play:
In the very first scene, we see Kimberly (Becky Allen) shivering on a park bench. She is joined by a man. Is he a boyfriend? A lover? Wait a minute. Remember: Kimberly is much younger than she looks. The man is her father, a car mechanic named Buddy (Dane Rhodes). He was supposed to take her for supper and then to a skating rink. But he is way late, as usual, because he had "car trouble," as usual. "Car trouble" is code for he got drunk.
Later, at her home, we meet Kimberly's mother, Pattie (Veronica Russell), who is pregnant, and her hands are bandaged from an operation for carpal tunnel syndrome. Patty is struggling to work a mini recorder. Although frustrated by her mitt-like hands, she soldiers on. Pattie is determined to make an oral history for her unborn baby. She hopes the new child will be "normal," as opposed to her first one, Kimberly, who is a doomed freak.
Into this maelstrom of dysfunction bursts Kimberly's aunt, Debra (Lara Grice). Debra wears a knit cap and jeans with holes at the knee -- suitable attire for a homeless ex-con who sleeps in the library. Debra is unreformed. She's cooking up crafty, criminal schemes to pay her bus fare to Florida -- assuming, that is, she will ever actually leave. The last time she showed up, she parked herself in the Kimberly family residence for years.
Fortunately for Kimberly, there is one other person in her life, a nerdy classmate named Jeff. He is an outcast like she is. He obsessively transforms names into anagrams with other meanings. Say "snooze alarm" to Jeff and he fires back with "alas, no more Zs." Jeff wants to use Kimberly and her disease as the subject of his school science project. Of course, that may just be his way of getting to spend time with her, for there seems to be a romance trying to blossom.
Director Ryan Rilette has put together a strong cast. He's taken the same tack through the crosscurrents of Kimberly Akimbo that Lear used with his radical soap-opera comedy. Rilette has the actors play the weird situations straight. Even the set (by Jenni-lee Crewe) is realistic. This choice of realism seems counterintuitive, but it grounds the extravagance of the imaginative world. What we get is something like Norman Lear meets Sam Shepard.
Becky Allen is in top form in the starring role. Allen is a performer who can easily seduce an audience, but she never plays that card. She creates a troubled, damaged yet formidable Kimberly. Lara Grice gives us a feisty pain-in-the-neck of a Debra. You can't help liking this scoundrel, but you thank your lucky stars she's not your sister. Dane Rhodes plays Buddy as a regular working stiff on the slippery slope of drink. His performance is perhaps a bit more shaded toward comic archetype than the others. Veronica Russell gives us a Pattie who bitches and bullies as though to the manor born. Kevin Marshal manages to make Jeff, who could be a clichŽd character, not only real and but somewhat touching.
Kimberly Akimbo is a regional premiere. It's also a good chance to see what's happening now in American theater.