There seems to be a good amount of contemporary American plays, like Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Kimberly Akimbo,” that serve up evidence of Tolstoy’s principle that “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“Kimberly Akimbo,” staged at Mad Horse Theatre Company, features a down-and-out family, including a 16-year-old with a rare disease that causes rapid aging. That leaves her dealing with the extraordinariness of a body of an older woman, but none of the wisdom.
Not that she isn’t wise, but Kimberly has the kind of savvy that only teenagers of dysfunctional families possess. She’s often the only “adult” in the room, and calls her parents and her aunt on their foolishness as only kids, so keenly observant by necessity, can do.
This show, directed by Nathan Speckman, was impeccably cast. Burke Brimmer as a borderline alcoholic father, Janice Gardner as a very pregnant, borderline narcissistic mother, Shannon Campbell as the scheming aunt on the skids, and Thomas Ian Campbell as a teenage word-puzzle geek – all quickly become people the audience knows well and may even remind some of people they actually do know, as the teenagers say, in real life. The grownups can be very frustrating, their behavior quite loathsome, but each one is also charming in some way.
This play is very dependent on the actor who plays Kimberly, because it could so easily be a superficial lampoon of a teenager’s tics and foibles. But Tootie Van Reenen as Kimberly is absolutely believable and even winsome as a girl left to deal with her family’s imperfections and her budding friendship with a boy, as well as her own rare condition.
“You people are freaks,” she says at one point of her family, in a neat encapsulation of one of the play’s contradictions, its intertwining of the ordinary and extraordinary, the mature and the immature.
As serious as the story is and as complex as its characters are, it’s also very funny. The minimal set in Mad Horse’s black box provides only the basics – the kitchen table, the car, a library desk – leaving the actors alone to bring us fully into this small-town New Jersey world. The plot has a weird twist and something of a criminal caper, and it drives home the precariousness of Kimberly’s physical condition.
“They grow up too fast,” laments Kimberly’s mother in another moment that has extraordinary, and funny, meaning in this particular play. Indeed they do, with or without much help from their elders.
WHAT: “Kimberly Akimbo” by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Nathan Speckman
WHERE: Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland
REVIEWED: Jan. 25 matinee; show runs through Feb. 8