Monday, October 20, 2014

Kimberly Akimbo Comes Together Beautifully

By Rachel Korach Howell
Photos by Bob Goodfellow

Jody Hovland as Kimberly; Frankie Rose as Jeff
Iowa City - David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo is chock full of the necessary humor humans must utilize in order to bear the weight of impending doom. Some may say the humor is too harsh at times. The love we hope to see is easily marred by a presentation that might not perfectly walk that line; nevertheless, you cannot deny the love that is deeply rooted within the language Lindsay-Abaire gives his characters.

Kimberly Levaco was born with a disease which ages her at 4x the rate of a “normal” human being. At 4 years old, she looks 16, and so on. We meet Kimberly on her 16th birthday, the picture of an old woman, the hopes of a budding teenager, with a wisdom and understanding of life forced upon her by her circumstances. Her parents are selfish, rude, angry, and - her mother especially - cruel to their daughter at times. She has only two friends: a nerdy dungeon master, who's a wizard with anagrams, and her quirky homeless aunt. Kimberly’s life may end soon, but she succeeds in teaching each character what it takes to truly live.

The stage is cold and barren. The only real set pieces are a bench, a table, and chairs which move around to create a car, a library, and a home setting. The backdrop is of dying tree branches with splashes of red, almost like veins - intricate and in the throes of seasonal decay (see the designer’s blog post on the Riverside Theatre website for more details on this well-executed visual concept). The tree branches create a beautiful backdrop, a reminder that life is only temporary. Director Sean Christopher Lewis uses the space well; the stage never feels empty of action.

The music design is full of catchy memories. They Might Be Giants filled the space as I walked to my seat and I was immediately excited. I associate that group with intelligent word play, fun, and youth. It was one of several keen musical choices which provided a wonderful backdrop to the story being told. The transition music was so recognizable to me, that it almost pulled me out, as I craved more than 10 seconds of these wonderful interludes, but after a few moments, the performances always trumped.

Tim Budd (Buddy), Carrie Houchins-Witt (Pattie), and Jody Hovland (Kimberly) gave great performances. Budd and Houchins-Witt, as Kimberly's parents, navigated the humor well and had considerable chemistry. I believed their underlying love for each other, even within this scenario that might be a nightmare to parents: their daughter outaging them and them outliving their daughter, all at the same time; the result, a detached love. Budd as Buddy was hilarious and his protectiveness of Kimberly sweet in its dysfunction. Houchins-Witt’s portrayal of Pattie was funny, her New Jersey housewife energetic and hormonal - spot on. However, these two never quite rang 100% true to me. I could see how Lindsay-Abaire’s script was hard for some to digest when it first emerged, that their parental cruelty was too much to stomach. However, I think their cruelty is a direct symptom of their incredible love for Kimberly. Pattie was amusing, but that third dimension that brings the audience into her corner wasn’t quite there. Buddy’s love for Kimberly was confirmed for this viewer at the very end of the play, but that moment made it clear that it should have been there throughout. The humor makes us laugh, and was extremely successful, but it is that love - a love that is almost entirely built in fear - that makes an audience grieve for these people.

Jody Hovland’s Kimberly was… challenging to witness. Her first lines to her father include “You suck,” and very much captured the attitude of a teenager. Yet they were coupled with an adult tone and came from the mouth of a mature woman. One could imagine the world confronting a living oxymoron such as Kimberly with confusion, curiosity, and insensitivity. That’s what the audience is forced to recognize in ourselves. We see this older woman and a young boy experiencing sparks of newly recognized sexuality, but are constantly reminded that this is not just the unconventional Harold and Maude love story. Kimberly went through menopause at 12 and death will not be a choice after a fully sated life. I don’t know how a woman of Hovland's age summons the mind of a 16 year old and adds physicality that ages her body even further than the audience originally recognizes, and progressively more so though the story we watch. I haven’t seen the full canon of Hovland’s work, but of the performances I have seen, this is hands down my favorite. The humor was delicate, and the relationships real. Only in one moment towards the end, a moment of real truth, did I feel a lack in connection between Hovland and the others. It was a big moment in the show, and I wanted more from it. However, the overall was simply wonderful.

Rose; Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers as Debra
Lastly, the work of Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers (Debra) and Frankie Rose (Jeff) was - dare I say it? F*#! it. I dare. It was perfection. I found myself watching them and thinking how cruel it is that Lindsay-Abaire might never see these roles lived in and executed with such realism, grace, and humor. There are no other performers I could imagine who could come close to what Hartsgrove Mooers and Rose have achieved. These roles were, without a doubt, written for these two actors. Though Debra and Jeff aren’t Kimberly's immediate family, it is their grief and their love of her that is most present. The show is truly fine, but to miss their performances is inexcusable.

I have been lucky to see Rose’s work a few times now, and am confused and amazed, each time, at how honest he already is at his young age. His ability to listen surpasses that of any college-age performer I’ve witnessed and his fearless attack on language and physicality is unlike most actors I’ve witnessed of any age. When Jeff was concerned for Kimberly, it was Rose who was concerned for Kimberly. Jeff’s attraction to Kimberly was really Rose’s attraction to Kimberly. And, I know, stating it in this way might make some uncomfortable, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was an incredibly charming, clumsy, nerdy boy who liked this girl and it was lovely to behold. Frankie Rose’s future in acting is limitless. Watching him is a gift I will never let go of.

Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers’ comic timing is unmatched, but there was one particular moment when Debra was forced to consider Kimberly's fate and her sudden pain is so subtle and so pure even when her words were denying the use of words in response to it… I couldn’t breathe. Even thinking of it now makes my body stiffen. Hartsgrove Mooers knows how to navigate these emotional and comic extremes because she is incapable of lying and cannot be anything but entirely generous on the stage. I have always loved her work. It is always true. Selfishly, I am excited to shout about it from this mountain top. Watching her is watching the potential of live theatre realized completely. People like her keep its blood pumping.

Opening night held a much smaller audience than this wonderful production deserved. FILL THE SEATS. This show, the work within it, and the gift it is offering deserve at least that much from us. Usher. Beg. Pay. But don’t miss this show that decidedly does not suck. Kimberly Akimbo runs through November 2. Ticket information here.

No comments: