Thursday, July 14, 2011

Kimberly Akimbo at Redwood Curtain

This is a longer version of my review in the North Coast Journal.

Healthy families are all alike, but every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. Which for playwrights from the Greeks to Eugene O’Neill onwards has been money in the bank. David Lindsay-Abaire studied playwriting at Julliard with Christopher Durang and Marsha (‘Night, Mother) Norman. He wrote the dysfunctional family of Kimberly Akimbo as if he was their love child, combining innocence and addictions, whimsy and noisy desperation in the wilds of working class New Jersey.

The production now on the Redwood Curtain stage in Eureka is introduced by theme songs from 50s and 60s family sitcoms, but this is more like the 1990s Married...With Children meeting the solemn surrealism of 2011 reality TV.

Kimberly Lavaco (played by Adina Lawson) is turning 16, which is the average life expectancy for her rare genetic disorder that causes her to age more than four times faster than normal. Her dad is Buddy (James Hitchcock), an alcoholic gas station booth attendant who promises to take the family to a Six Flags amusement park with a new African safari attraction, but never does. Her mother is Pattie (Elisa Abelleira), who is very pregnant and has both arms in casts from a purported carpel tunnel syndrome surgery. She says she’s dying of cancer (she isn’t) and so must spill her thoughts into a tape recorder for her unborn daughter.

Pattie’s sister Debra (Peggy Metzger) is a homeless petty criminal who has lived in their basement, and is the moving force both in their past and in the crime that is planned and committed during the play. She’s also the closest to Kimberly.

We learn of Kimberly’s condition thanks to the cluelessly sincere interest of her high school classmate Jeff, whose own unseen family includes a criminal brother and neglectful father. He stays afloat with enthusiasms for Dungeons and Dragons and anagrams (the play was written in 2000, before similar teens moved on to newer obsessions.)

Adina Lawson brings Kimberly to life with an adept performance that centers the play. But this is really an ensemble production, and all the actors define specific characters that create both comic and dramatic moments, sometimes simultaneously. Peggy Metzger’s performance is so physically expressive that Debra is wholly convincing from the start. In a contrasting low-keyed style, Kody Dennis brings to Jeff a desperate warmth, a youthful enthusiasm in quiet war with anxiety. He and Lawson play believable age-crossed lovers.

Buddy is the one character who changes surprisingly if modestly, and James Hitchcock ably plays his various colors. Although she changes little, Pattie does have dimensions to reveal, and Elisa Abelleira makes an impression in a difficult role. This emphasis on acting is getting to be a hallmark of Redwood Curtain productions. I suspect a lot of credit goes to director Cassandra Hesseltine.

There’s lots of comedy, even in the talky first act, but this world is so profoundly sad. Amidst all the self-justifying struggle and denial, the family’s happiest moments are playing a nostalgic board game. The best liberation any of them can imagine is Six Flags and Florida.

Playwright Lindsay-Abaire takes a lot of liberties with his stage world. (Maybe that’s what everyone means when they call him “quirky,” a word I’d dearly like to see retired.) But as audience investing belief we have to know the rules of this world, and lack of clarity, plus a certain slipshod relationship to reality, tends to take you out of the play.

Among the problems I had was understanding the rules of Kimberly’s disease (which resembles the rare but real condition of Progeria, but is different in important respects.) It was hard for me to see just what the effects of this rapid aging were supposed to be, since this Kimberly moved like a teenager. If anything, Adina Lawson is too convincing--a living advertisement for her yoga regimen. There seemed to be no visible progression in the disease or other physical effects during the play.

There are reasons why the playwright didn't just use classic Progeria as his protagonist's disease.  For one it involves dwarfism.  For another it is genetic but not hereditary--that is, it is caused by a genetic malfunction, but not by a gene that is passed down from  parent to child or to succeeding generations.  This is a common misunderstanding of some "genetic" diseases.  This is important here because one of the key questions of the play involves whether the child Kimberly's mother is carrying risks being born with her disease (the disorder in the play is passed on 20% of the time, according to the text.)

There are smaller but suggestive alterations to reality.  That Pattie would have casts on both arms for the entire period of the play doesn't pass the smell test, especially since surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome is a much more local operation.  My point here is that there's always this risk when exaggerating for comic or even dramatic effect: that the suspension of disbelief necessary to make the effect work requires an automatic acceptance of the premise, and if doubts occur to you, or you're thinking about what the rules are, you're not going to be open to the disbelief or the effect.

Does that mean everything onstage has to make sense?  Only within the world that's being created.  Nobody expects the Marx Brothers world to make literal sense.  And while there may be a story (does the opera succeed?  Does the boy get the girl?) it's low stakes storytelling, though how that plot meshes with the comedy is the art of it.  For me, it works awkwardly in this play.           

The virtues of the play are encapsulated in one directorial touch: when Buddy talks into the tape recorder about the disappointments of his life, of having a family before he’s seen the world, he does so with snow falling on him alone in a volume that almost chokes him. The play’s co-dependence of poignancy and absurdity is expressed in this theatrical gesture.

The problems with the play are suggested by another gesture: Kimberly persuades her parents to drop nickels into a can whenever they use foul language. On this stage, the tin periodically pops out the nickels like popcorn. It’s a funny bit, but it is ignored by the characters and seems to have no reality or function other than as a funny bit that takes us out of the play. Maybe I'm not sufficiently postmodern to accept this.

I saw this at first preview and I also felt a lack of pacing, which may emerge as the cast feels the rhythms of performance.  But that's fairly common onstage hereabouts--there is this sense of just getting through it, as quickly as possible.  Pacing is a tool for emphasis, for directing the audience's attention.  So is staging.  The wide and shallow Redwood Curtain stage presents particular challenges. Generally the way to direct the audience's attention is to stage the most significant scenes as close to downstage center as possible.  To me the pivotal scenes took place in Kimberly bedroom, which was upstage and stage right.  I felt it was too remote.

Jody Sekas designed the inventive set that creates an appropriate crowdedness for this claustrophobic family world. Meeka Day and Jayson Mohatt designed the lighting, Gail Holbrook the costumes, John Turney the sound. Kimberly Akimbo continues at Redwood Curtain Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. until July 30, with one Sunday matinee on July 24 at 2 p.m.

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