In a theatre weekend that found me attending a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, a Kaufman & Hart play, a Shakespeare, and a pseudo-Shakespeare, I have to admit that, with the Riverbend Theatre Collective's presentation of Kimberly Akimbo, I was so psyched to see actors in modern dress screaming obscenities at one another that I could barely contain myself.
Happily, the production is damned fine in its own right, perhaps, in part, because the actors seem so delighted for the chance to wear modern dress and scream obscenities at one another. Four of the cast members - Aaron Sullivan, Denise Yoder, Jaci Entwisle, and Dustin Oliver - most recently performed with the classical-theatre troupe the Prenzie Players, and the fifth, Peggy Freeman, most recently appeared at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre as a harried senior citizen and a nun, and I can't recall ever seeing any of them as purely comfortable on-stage as they seem in Kimberly Akimbo. Even during the most manic highs in David Lindsay-Abaire's delirious black comedy - cheerfully directed by Allison Collins-Elfline - the performers exude relaxed, effortless confidence.
Kimberly Levaco (played by Freeman) is a typical teenage girl with one crucial difference: She suffers from a rare disease that's causing her to age four-and-a-half times faster than she should. As the play opens, Kimberly has just turned 16 - the age at which those with the disease tend to die - but incredibly, she has even less reason to celebrate, as she's also become the de facto caretaker to her wildly dysfunctional family: a hugely pregnant, hypochondriacal mother (Entwisle); an alcoholic father (Sullivan); and an impulsively angry aunt (Yoder), recently released from prison. And yes, in case you were now thinking otherwise, this is a comedy.
Though Lindsay-Abaire gets a lot of early mileage from the dichotomy between Kimberly's elderly appearance and her youthful demeanor - and Freeman is hilarious when slouching like a sullen teenager or responding to an interruption with a petulant "I'm on the phone!" - neither the character nor the actress is ever used for cheap gags. Kimberly is funny because she's real, a shy, sarcastic, easily mortified girl who's been living with her disease so long that, like everything else in her life, it's become a joke. (When her dad warns Kimberly against becoming too friendly with Oliver's potential beau, Jeff, she rolls her eyes and says, "Dad, I went through menopause four years ago.") Lindsay-Abaire ensures that we don't ever laugh at Kimberly, and Freeman, in a wonderful performance, plays her with inspiring honesty. Though the character has built-in pathos, the actress never seeks our pity, and Freeman delivers Kimberly's wisecracks with such nonchalance that they seem less like jokes than the natural results of an active, witty mind; she's a wrinkled Juno.
She's also extraordinarily touching - Kimberly's fidgety nerves when alone with Jeff suggest adolescent awkwardness at its sweetest - and provides an outstanding contrast to Entwisle and Yoder, who are ferociously, and appropriately, overscaled. As a shrieking harridan who flips, without warning, into an eyelash-batting coquette, Entwisle performs comic marvels in a really tricky role; she's brash, monstrous, and completely irresistible. And Yoder, who's given a priceless bit in which she has to drag a stolen mailbox slo-o-owly across the stage (let's not get into why), delivers aggrieved tirades with aggressive gusto, hurling vitriol with such comic force that you shrink for those who get in her way.
Oliver's character has to do the lion's share of shrinking, and the actor does it with such unaffected humor and warmth that you smile every time he shows up; Jeff appears to exist in a contented, vaguely distracted world of his own, and his crush on Kimberly is performed with lovely grace and tact. As for Sullivan, nothing - not even his frequently excellent work for the Prenzies - prepared me for the richness of his portrayal here. Sorrowfully matter-of-fact about his deficiencies as a husband and father, yet blessed with good humor and a quick wit, Sullivan's beleaguered Buddy is a mass of contradictions, and his expert readings and exhausted physicality cue you in to every one of them; it's a phenomenally strong performance.
I caught Kimberly Akimbo during Riverbend's Sunday-matinée presentation, and as with many matinées, the show wasn't without its gaffes. (It's the strangest thing in theatre: If things are gonna go wrong, they're probably gonna go wrong in the daytime.) The import of Kimberly's Act II showdown with her family was lessened by the actors tripping over a few too many lines - the scene never developed the dramatic momentum it needed - and the subsequent, climactic scene was almost thoroughly botched by sound effects that didn't match Oliver's gestures, or vice-versa; for a couple of minutes, we seemed to be in a badly dubbed, unintentionally funny Japanese monster movie. By the show's end, though, Collins-Elfine and her cast had engendered such terrific goodwill that these goofs were mere hiccups - the type that sometimes occur after digesting a thoroughly satisfying meal.
For information, visit (http://www.riverbendtheatrecollective.com).