Award-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has crafted a hybrid play, part would-be zany comedy and part poignant exploration of a rare medical condition, now receiving its Houston premiere. The execution:
Mom is an hypochondriac, pregnant and with some real problems. Dad is an alcoholic in a dead-end job. Aunt Debra is an energetic schemer missing a few marbles and with a history of chicanery. Thank God for the teen-agers. Neighbor Jeff is a bit of a geek, but his heart is in the right place, and he cares about others. And daughter Kimberly is coping stoically with a rare debilitating disease, which ages her 4.5 times faster than the chronological rate. I'll do the math for you - at 16, her body is 72 years old.
The acting is first-rate, with authentic characterizations well played, but the adults are written small in two-dimensional roles. Jennifer Decker plays Mom, hands bandaged due to carpal tunnel, and hugely pregnant, and she is intense and appealing as a woman who simply has learned the wrong coping tools, and sees a life of endless non-joy stretching before her.
Luke Fedell plays Dad, a low-grade alcoholic, fortunately non-violent, whose dreams are of such a low order - visiting the Alamo - that it approaches endearing. He sobers up in Act Two - Mom liked him more when he was on the sauce, but he showed more range sober, and maintains a likable quality throughout. Kim Tobin-Lehl plays Aunt Debra with enthusiasm and wide-eyed energy, and makes the most of a one-note character.
Carolyn Houston Boone (an adult in real life, who was so good in American Falls earlier this year) plays Kimberly, the afflicted daughter, and creates a memorable portrait. Instead of the conventional teen-ager rebelling against authority, she is a teenager trying to bring a sense of order to a dysfunctional family. We see the child within the adult body, thanks to Boone's consummate skill, and we are glad to have met her. She is well-matched by ninth-grader Ty Doran as Jeff, a teenager who befriends Kimberly, and forms an attachment, seeing the youth inside her elderly body. His stage presence, amused patience at the foibles of adults, and quiet charm are remarkable.
The play has some amusing moments, but the aura of deepening depression works against humor, and the script makes no serious effort to explore Kimberly's inner turmoil at the hand life has dealt her. The best scenes are between Kimberly and Jeff, and the drama here provides some poignant insights into teen-age shyness and mutual attraction. A sub-plot about a proposed bank scam seems so unlikely that I'm not sure it belongs here. And this family has a secret, revealed toward the end of Act Two, which adds another element to the themes of zany and disease, making for a fuller plate.
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The play is directed with sensitivity and finesse by Houston theater veteran Ron Jones, and the pace is brisk where appropriate and yet slows when necessary to permit us to savor the sweetness of young love. There are ample sound effects, ably designed by Andrew Adams. The set design by Frankie Teuber is essentially an eat-in kitchen, and it captures, perhaps too well, the ambiance of borderline poverty.
Skilled acting and direction bring to life an original script that explores a rare medical malady. The playwright under-delivers on both humor and insights, but the performances of Boone and Doran make this well-worth seeing.
Kimberly Akimbo continues through December 15. From Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0409 or contact email@example.com.