Joy Carlin, a Berkeley woman of the theater, has found a solution to the age-old complaint that there’s a shortage of roles for mature actresses. She’s playing a 16-year-old, the title role of Kimberly Akimbo, a play by David Lindsay-Abaire, at the San Francisco Playhouse near Union Square through May 21.
Kimberly obviously isn’t the typical teenage role. This is no feat of nontraditional casting. She’s afflicted with progeria, an extremely rare condition that accelerates aging. That is, Kimberly looks much older than her age. Progeria sufferers typically die at age 13; by the time they’re 6 or 7, they are physiologically older than their parents.
Yet Kimberly’s milieu is more eccentric than she is. On Bill English’s excellent set—oblique, revolving flats to the wings of an oblique skyline (it’s Bogota ... New Jersey)—the characters around the central one spill out. There is frantic father Buddy (Clive Worsley) and hypocondriac mother Pattie (Susi Damilano, who is also producing director of The Playhouse), chatting away on tape for the benefit of her unborn baby; Aunt Debra (Deb Fink, a Berkeley native and Central Works stalwart), very New Jersey and constantly scamming and Jeff (Jeremy Kahn), Kimberly’s schoolmate, the odd one out, seemingly a regular kid, but with a fetish for anagrams (he’s the one who comes up with “Kimberly Akimbo”).
Kimberly presides over the whole scene like a stoic mother or grandmother figure. Aunt Debra could easily pass for her daughter. And she and her contemporary Jeff should have tastes more than a generation apart—if looks could tell. (One of the backstage jokes of the production is that Jeremy Kahn’s playing it young, too—he’s really 18.)
The ensemble at large seldom mentions Kimberly’s condition, but it percolates through each complicated situation and the going gets complicated, though never hard to follow. In many ways what Lindsay-Abaire has fashioned is a play that runs the gamut of genres, from what would seem to be a character sketch or tear-jerker about a young person facing a premature end, through eccentric family milieu-drama (with added perk of the kid being the mature one), into a kind of con or heist suspense piece. At one point, Jeff and Kimberly dress up as grandmother and grandson to see a bank manager in furthering one of Aunt Debra’s endless run of scams. It’s a coup, and the audience realizes just how profoundly their view of things has been altered, even if just temporarily, and on stage. And it is finally a first love (doomed love?) tale, but a completely unconventional one.
It’s a good cast, with the women particularly outstanding. Susi Damilano and Deb Fink are charming and very funny in their wacked-out personae. Joy Carlin must not only belie her seniority in regards to her cast-mates, but also the direct expression of her experience as seasoned actress and director, which would cut the suspension of disbelief by itself.
Kent Nicholson is the “new works director” at TheatreWorks on the Peninsula, and has directed for the Magic in San Francisco, recently for Shotgun (where he directed Dog Act) and for many other Bay Area theaters. He’s an accomplished and sensitive director. With a tour-de-force for both lead role and the whole, genre-jumping play at hand, he’s chosen to take it right down the middle, integrally, following the action and the milieu out as it comes, with the overriding situation always apparent, even if not in full view every moment. This is a humanistic approach, rather than taking the tour-de-force by the horns.
Part of the point of the play seems to be the constant tension between the normal and the abnormal, and who’s to say which is what, and what it does to the most thoughtful person to try to define normalcy and their relation to it (especially in the midst of this kind of New Jersey “domesticity”!)
Kent’s got the horse ahead of the cart. In an ideal production, I’d like to see a little more theatricality, something missing from our theaters these days. Not necessarily Eccentrism, to pull a Russian style of modern theatricality out of the hat, though the word fits. Kent knows this idiom, and has used it to good effect.
Kimberly Akimbo, in any case, is densely packed, and gives the audience a full evening—just as it’s given Joy Carlin the role of a lifetime—the role of a short life with the wisdom of age.
Kimberly Akimbo will be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and at 3 and 8 p.m. Sundays through May 21 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 536 Sutter St. $30. (415) 677-9596, or email@example.com.›