A Teenage Girl With a Terminal Disease is Adult in the Room
By: Victor Cordell - Jan 28, 2024
Critics of the performing arts crave originality. Having progeria, a disease in which the body ages at 4 ½ times the normal, as central to a comedy must check that box. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire crafted a thoroughly entertaining and touching play about a girl suffering the condition who turns 16, the average life span for its victims. But the play is full of humanity and even an odd sense of optimism, promoting the notion of carpe diem, seize the day. With a stellar cast and distinctive contributions from the creative directors, Altarena Playhouse offers a production that delivers most everything the play has to offer.
Kimberly lives with her dead-end, self-centered parents, Buddy and Pattie in northern New Jersey. Kimberly deals with her physical tragedy as well as the expected social isolation of looking like the grandmother of her peers. But at home, she is the most grounded and the adult in the room. Buddy is a lush who always lies about why he is very late getting back from work and makes promises he will never keep. The narcissistic Pattie exhibits hypochondria; is pregnant; and has both hands bandaged from carpal tunnel surgery, so she needs assistance to eat and more. The family had moved houses recently without notifying Pattie’s sister Debra, a grifter who was in jail at the time. But Debra tracked them down and moved in on the sly, armed with a scheme to get rich the illegal way.
Jamison Vaughn is Kimberly, and she inhabits the role beautifully. Often disparaging her parents for bad behavior, Vaughn’s sentences usually begin with a whiny “D-a-a-a-d” or “M-o-o-o-m” followed by a chiding or a plea. And though her remaining life is short, she immerses herself in the day-to-day, and seems uncommonly well adjusted. Although people close to her are sensitive to her condition and her mortality, well-intended but clumsy people say hurtful things. One of the sublime elements of Vaughn’s acting is the subtle flinching when confronted with unmindful, distressing comments.
It’s rewarding to watch a great performance by an actor who is completely outside his real skin, and does it without the aid of prosthetics or transformative makeup. Peter Marietta appears more fit to play debonaire or self-possessed roles, but aces the part of Buddy assisted only by sloppy clothes and slightly ruffled hair. Of course, he adds the facial and bodily expressions as well as the speech, which is “The Sopranos” Jersey Accent 2.0 to create a totally convincing working class schlub. His thoughtlessness is reflected in picking up Kimberly 2 ½ hours late in the freezing cold, and along with Pattie, forgetting Kimberly’s 16th birthday.
The same acting case can be made for the striking Allison Gamlen as she nails the heedless Pattie who is full of cringeworthy comments that are well delivered in Jersey patois. In front of Kimberly, she insensitively notes about her unborn that “This one will be perfect.” And about not being able to her use her bandaged hands, she shares with all that “I can’t wait to be able to wipe my own ass.” She is however forward thinking enough to record comments as a memory bank for her next child, but needless to say, many of those comments may not reflect well.
Along with the parents’ insensitivity, profanity abounds, and one bright spot is that they agree to Kimberly’s challenge to put a nickel into a jar on the kitchen table each time they swear. Surprisingly, given their personalities, they even humorously cough up the forfeit when nobody hears them and nobody is looking.
Caroline Schneider impressively portrays the bombastic, ne’er-do-well Debra who creates mayhem any time she is in the scene. Rounding out the cast is a charming Rowan Cole Weeramantry as Jeff, a recent and only school friend of Kimberly’s who obsessively creates anagrams, which accounts for the name Akimbo in the title. The two also share the bond of living with bad parenting.
Director Dana Anderson leads an impressive team of creative directors. Tom Curtin’s set is fitting for the production. Danielle Ferguson provides many lighting changes from intensity and location to blackout. Daniel “Techno” Debono offers numerous sound effects.
Although the production brims with virtues, one major flaw in Kimberly’s depiction fails to avail the breadth of the character. Vaughn’s age appearance on stage is ambiguous. She could be in her thirties or forties. She should look 72 years old, which is easily correctible with a realistic salt-and-pepper or gray wig.
I usually hate comparing elements of a production being reviewed to another realization, but this time it is too hard to resist. I saw 62-year-old actress Victoria Clark, who won a Best Actress Tony Award, portray Kimberly in the Broadway musical based on this play. Two things make the central age conceit work for Clark with such power, and they could work in this production. One is the massive contradiction between the look of a matronly woman versus her teenage behaviors and her teenage friend. The other is the daughter looking like the mother to her parents rather than vice versa, which acts as a constant reminder of her condition and how close she is to the end of life. These important dimensions are regrettably lost by not showing the character aged appropriately.
A minor issue concerns audibility, which is an inherent problem with a full-thrust stage, having audience on three sides. Depending on where the action takes place on the stage and what direction the speaker is facing, dialogue is sometimes lost to one or the other wing section of the audience. This was particularly true with Weeramantry early on when his voice did not project well from upstage right.
A final issue concerns pacing, which felt slow in the first game scene. The second game scene, which involves “Dungeons and Dragons” was brisk, but of little interest to audience members who aren’t familiar with the game. That, however, is a script issue, not a directing one or performing one.
But despite its theme and the abundance of flawed characters, “Kimberly Akimbo” is a winsome play and a delightful experience.
“Kimberly Akimbo,” written by David Lindsay-Abaire is produced by Altarena Playhouse and plays on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through February 25, 2024.