Kimberly Levaco (Jayne Luke)—the protagonist in Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of Kimberly Akimbo—is about to celebrate her 16th birthday, but she looks like she’s 50. Born with a progeria-like disease that causes her body to age faster than normal, Kimberly faces the challenge of being a teenager with more than the usual obstacles. Her disease is only one of them—she shares her home with alcoholic father Buddy (Kurt Proctor), hypochondriac mother Pattie (Colleen Baum) and her criminally-inclined Aunt Debra (Wendy Wilde). Kimberly looks more mature than anyone else in her family, and by necessity, she also has to be more mature. Kimberly Levaco is a walking, talking metaphor.
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire crafts a hilarious piece of dysfunctional family comedy in Kimberly Akimbo, but he also appears to be fond of big symbols; he also sets the play in an unseasonably wintry New Jersey April, playing the spring-that-looks-like-winter against Kimberly’s condition. Young playwrights often gravitate toward such devices as thematic shorthand, which can sometimes work against them. Kimberly Akimbo is so entertaining for so much of the time that it’s hard not to wish its central character had a life beyond Lindsay-Abaire’s thesis statement.
It’s not as though there isn’t plenty going on in that life. Pattie is pregnant, trying desperately to reassure herself that this baby will be healthy while growing increasingly bitchy about being unable to do anything with her bandaged, post-carpal-tunnel-surgery hands. Aunt Debra is trying to lure her niece into a scam to cash bogus checks. She may even be developing a romance with her classmate Jeff (David Fetzer)—fittingly enough, someone whose family life is nearly as screwed up as hers.
That’s a lot of wackiness to fit into one play, which makes it pretty important that the comedy actually works. Fortunately, it does, thanks both to Lindsay-Abaire’s tart dialogue and a game cast. Colleen Baum regularly steals the show as the loud-mouthed Pattie, giving furiously funny readings of her frequent profane tirades. (A note to the linguistically sensitive: A “swear jar” becomes a running gag during the show, and it gets filled up with good reason.) David Fetzer gives Jeff a quirky sweetness, and Wendy Wilde plays Debra appropriately over-the-top as a woman who treats her life choices as militant performance art. Baum generally gets the best gags—or maybe it’s just her performance that makes them seem like the best gags—but the entire cast sells the punch lines with enough enthusiasm to make for a raucous good time.
There’s supposed to be something deeper lurking beneath the laughter, and that’s where Kimberly Akimbo occasionally gets in trouble. Kimberly herself may be the protagonist, but for long stretches she’s the sane center around which the craziness flies. The tone shifts required to get the audience into “serious drama” mode feel even more abrupt because Lindsay-Adaire doesn’t really take time until very late in the play to get inside Kimberly’s head. While Luke plays Kimberly with an appropriately withdrawn sensibility, she begins to feel like a prop for the telling of an outrageous story. Her condition becomes a plot device, rather than a painful reality.
SLAC regular scenic designer Kevin Myhre does effective work with the show’s pacing, and creates a versatile set—hourglass-shaped pieces that become chairs, pillars and tables—that effectively captures a family forced to improvise as they go along. It’s a solid production, though its effectiveness is hindered by meandering character accents that make the ostensible New Jersey residents generally sound like they grew up in New Hampshire.
The things they say are clever enough not to be overwhelmed by the dialect in which they speak them, and Kimberly Akimbo is certainly an entertaining evening of theater. But it wants to be more than just entertaining and can’t always hit those loftier goals with its underdeveloped heroine. When Kimberly expresses a desire to be acknowledged as still alive, it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from.