Friday, August 14, 2009

Teen angst gets a twist in M&D's 'Kimberly Akimbo'

Dysfunctional families and teen angst have always been great fodder for stories whether in movies, on TV, on the page or on stage, but Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abraire offers a new twist on familiar formulas in “Kimberly Akimbo,” which opened Thursday night at M&D Productions’ Your Theatre at Willow Commons in North Conway, N.H.

The title character is your average 16-year-old girl in attitude and personality, but not in appearance. Kimberly (Stacy Sand) has a disease that causes her to age four and a half times faster than a normal person, giving her the appearance and the aliments of a 72-year-old woman.

If the premise sounds familiar that’s because it was also the basis of the 1996 Robin Williams movie “Jack,” but the treatment of the scenario is handled with a lot more care and sincerity by Lindsay-Abraire.

The late 1980s were full of body switch movies with a teen inhabiting an adult body, the best of which was “Big.” In some respects “Kimberly Akimbo” recalls these movies, but there’s more at stake: The average life expectancy of someone with Kimberly’s disease is 16.

The success or failure of the show falls squarely on whether Sand is believable as a teenager in an older body, and she is. Sand captures that angst-ridden teen whine, the awkwardness and the sarcastic attitude. She has the look right too, with slumped shoulders and shoveled feet.

Kimberly’s family is quirky to say the least. Dad (Ken Martin) is an alcoholic, but a lovable one at least. Mom (Dawn Marra) is a pregnant hypochondriac who thinks she’s dying of cancer and is dealing with bandaged hands following a surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Then there’s Debra (Shana Myers), Kimberly’s drifter/grifter aunt, who comes crashing back into her life from a past that the family has not fully addressed and would care to leave alone.

Into Kimberly’s chaotic life enters Jeff (Andrew Clark), a curious fellow classmate who shows interest in Kimberly initially for a school project, but then as more.

All this reads as fairly standard stuff until you add Kimberly’s disease into the mix, but Lindsay-Abraire’s script and director Dan Tetrealt never use it as a gimmick. Instead it is used to look at what it means to age and our perceptions of young and old.

Kimberly’s appearance is simply accepted. It is too painful for Kimberly’s family to directly address the fact that she could die very soon. But that fact, even when ignored, is always lingering.

Lindsay-Abraire has an astute way of finding humor in tragic situations. In this case there is some very broad humor, but even when the antics border on madcap, Lindsay-Abraire’s dialogue has a realistic rhythm.

The family conversations at the dinner table feel authentic as does the sweet “Harold and Maude”-esque relationship that develops between Kimberly and Jeff. Clark is very good as Jeff who is able to see Kimberly as the 16-year-old girl she is rather than the older woman she appears to be.

Kimberly’s mom and especially her sister are big, boisterous personalities played to the hilt by Marra and Myers. Martin as the blue collar father is less broadly comedic, but gets laughs with his dry deliver of obscenity laced dialogue.

Set design by Mark Delancey emulates the panels of a black-on-white comic strip and in its odd way this perfectly encapsulates the tone of the material, which is indeed a comedy in spite of the bleaker implications of the premise.

This is the second play penned by Lindsay-Abraire that M&D has produced following last year’s production of “Rabbit Hole,” and it is no surprise that the company is drawn to the author’s materials. He presents recognizable characters in a fresh, naturalistic way that is thoughtful, moving and at times very funny. What more could you want in a piece of theater?

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