Coming of Age

Kimberly Akimbo, currently being staged at Nomad Theatre, begins with an elderly woman seated on a bench, huddled in her jacket against a surprising April snowstorm. (The first mention of the unseasonable weather got a big laugh on the snowy 30th of April in Boulder.) A younger man comes by. He's full of jovial energy, playful, almost childish. He jollies the woman along. He lies down on the ground to make a snow angel. This man is the woman's father. She is sixteen-year-old Kimberly Levaco, and she suffers from progeria, a disease that causes her body to age with frightening speed, killing most sufferers by the age of sixteen.

As in his earlier play Fuddy Meers, in which the protagonist had lost her memory and was forced to reinvent her life every morning, David Lindsay-Abaire is exploring the metaphorical and emotional dimensions of a real illness -- an illness that's tragic, yet possible to evoke with quirky, sometimes farcical humor. It's a brilliant stroke, this idea of a teenage girl in a sixty-something woman's body. It speaks to the relentlessly linear forward movement of time, the bright poignancy of daily life when it's set against the urgent press of mortality.

Kimberly's parents are a mess. Her father is an immature drunk stuck in a dead-end job. Her mother is a high-maintenance hypochondriac, susceptible to all kinds of imaginary ailments and -- because of carpal-tunnel surgery -- unable to use her hands even to wipe her own butt. She refuses to fully accept the damaged Kimberly and looks forward to the birth of the baby she's carrying, which she assumes will be perfect.

On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Kimberly finds solace with a shy nerd named Jeff, a shaper of anagrams and a Dungeons and Dragons devotee. And then there's felonious Aunt Debra, who barges into the Levacos' home and life with a poisonous secret and the intention of enlisting Kimberly and Jeff in her latest criminal scheme.

Kimberly Akimbo is simultaneously absurd and realistic, funny and tragic, and Lindsay-Abaire knows how to construct visual images that vibrate with meaning: the bright kids'-book pictures of animals on the walls of the library where Kimberly talks with Jeff; the moment when Kimberly shuffles onto the stage in a frumpy coat and old-fashioned hat, looking like everybody's grandmother.

There are many strengths in the Nomad production, directed by John Thornberry, and also some weaknesses. Marian Bennett plays Kimberly with subtlety and low-key conviction, but without much energy. You like her; you empathize; you smile at some of the sweeter moments -- but she doesn't really communicate the contrast between sixteen and sixty, and you often find yourself watching the livelier actors when you should be watching the protagonist.

David Blumenstock is more vital as Kimberly's father, Buddy, who becomes even more intolerable -- in the funniest way possible -- once he's seen the error of his drunken ways and morphed into a Bible-pushing, Dungeons & Dragons-excoriating, would-be-fatherly man of God.

And Denise Perry-Olson is so full of life as Kimberly's mother that you can hardly take your eyes off her as she struggles to eat without hands or limps her way over obstacles and across the stage. Pattie Levaco is one of those monstrously and hilariously destructive mothers who are a dramatic staple, but Perry-Olson makes her somewhat kindlier and more sympathetic than I suspect the playwright intended. It works, humanizing the play and adding interest to the family dynamics. It's worth attending this production for Pattie's shrieking labor scene alone.

Another star performance is that of high school sophomore Scott Ryan, who possesses a stage presence many older actors might envy; he makes Jeff sensitive but poised and self-aware. Aunt Debra is a one-note character, but that one note should be very funny. Unfortunately, Mari Geasair's performance is shrill and unfocused.

The set, by Brian Miller, is multi-dimensional and terrific, and so is Thornberry's choice of music. On opening night, the set changes were awkward -- a significant flaw for a production that requires liveliness and speed.

Like Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo ends with the heroine on the road. Unlike Fuddy Meers, it offers a glimmer of redemptive hope. With any luck, this eccentric, heartfelt and well-worth-seeing piece will help pull Boulder's venerable Nomad Theatre out of the doldrums.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman