Thoughts & Musings

The Time Is Out of Joint:
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo (2001)

© 2010 by Eileen Warburton

April, wrote TS Eliot, “is the cruelest month.” This play opens in April-the month “mixing memory and desire,” as our flesh urges us ahead, while our hearts ache with looking back. The season is youth. It’s new life, however painful. It’s the awakening of want. But the April of this play is unseasonable winter. The temperature is freezing and bitter, the snow is falling heavily. This is winter, when it’s supposed to be spring. Like Kimberly.

Like the time, everything in this hilarious and heart-breaking comedy is out of joint-or “akimbo.” The adults act like irresponsible, selfish teenagers. The teenagers act like adults. The ditzy, vulgar criminal aunt is the only marginally sympathetic relative.

Teenaged Kimberly at 16 is at the magical beginning of possibilities for love, friendship, self-knowledge, and independence. Kimberly at 16 is also coming to the end of her life expectancy, her body well past menopause, worn with atherosclerosis and buffeted by the afflictions of age. Her disease, blithely described as “like progeria without the dwarfism,” ages her at four and a half times the usual rate. She is a living reminder of mortality to everyone around her, particularly her family. But inside the frail physical body of a seventy-year old she’s a lonely, dreamy teenaged girl, the only child of a frantically dysfunctional family who, as she mourns, “gave up long ago.” At school she is isolated by her weirdness. At home, she is the only emotionally steady member of a family riddled by the guilt of her presence, who take refuge in irresponsibility and forgetfulness. They even “forget” her important 16th birthday. The “toxic” Buddy and Patti, with their high-school Cutest Couple names, are stuck in the past, with Buddy drinking too much and bemoaning the places he couldn’t go in life and Patti becoming a raging, self-centered hypochondriac, nursing her real and imagined broken leg, carpal tunnel syndrome, cancer, diabetes, and chipped tooth, plus a problematic pregnancy with a “perfect” child coldly calculated to replace her diseased, dying daughter.

The inspiration for Kimberly Akimbo was a chance comment from a friend the playwright asked about his baby niece. “Oh, she’s incredible,” the friend enthused. “She’s 8 months old going on 80. She’s just this wise, tiny little woman trapped in a baby’s body.” Imagining this literally, David Lindsey-Abaire turned the notion upside down, focusing on the image of a child prematurely becoming aged. “What a great role-for an older actress to play a kid or a teenager!” he thought, and the play wrote itself around the teenaged girl he envisioned trapped in an older woman’s body.

Kim is the archetypal absurdist Lindsey-Abaire character, a decent, sympathetic person trapped in an impossibly lunatic life situation. Think Franz Kafka meets the Marx Brothers. This 41-year old playwright has said that he is attracted to “outsiders in search of clarity.” Born in 1969 on the tough streets of South Boston, the son of a factory worker and a fruit peddler, his own childhood was a disconnect that left him permanently aware of the outsider’s perspective. At 12, a scholarship catapulted him from the working class into elite Milton Academy. From there, he studied theatre at Sarah Lawrence College, then moved to the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at the Julliard School, under the mentorship of no less than Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman. A student workshop project led to his first produced play, Fuddy Meers. In the mere ten years since then, Lindsey-Abaire has produced eight plays, and won a staggering number of theatrical prizes (including the Pulitzer in 2007) and bagsful of distinguished commissions. He can move seamlessly between writing the harrowing Rabbit Hole, a play about a couple responding to the death of their child, to writing the book and lyrics for Shrek, the Musical, a staged extravaganza replete with farting trolls, aggressive donkeys, and pouting princesses.

There are always word puzzles in Lindsey-Abaire’s work and the simplest words often reverberate with several meanings. In this play Kimberly’s name yields the anagram “Cleverly Akimbo.” She’s bent, she’s out of joint-and this is certainly part of the story. But she’s also clever enough to finally assume the classic posture-arms on hips, akimbo, asserting herself, seizing the day with an attitude.

The cruelty of time lies at the heart of this play. Yet even as Kimberly’s life and the days that measure it race past too quickly, all the characters, like the frozen, snowy spring weather, are frozen in place. Buddy is stuck in a lower end working class job, drinking and dreaming of going places but never doing it. His promises are worthless and he has accepted that “it makes things easier in a way not to have any choices.” Patti, who once played the organ, now wraps her hands in bandages and has regressed into selfish infancy herself, needing to be fed and toileted. Aunt Debra, just out of jail, refuses to take the honest course to her dream destination, protesting, “My whole life has been later.” Kimberly is stuck waiting for these people to deliver on their promises, to grow up, to love her properly and behave like a family.

Just as spring always brings the thaw, so in comedy love brings the transformation. Teenaged Jeff, the nerdy, anxious guy in Kim’s biology class who works at Zippy Burger, is interested enough to, literally, puzzle out Kimberly. Jeff asks the questions, works the anagram, and figures out a little of what it means to be Kimberly. He relates, not to the aged woman, but to the girl inside her. Jeff, furthermore, is an outsider in his own family. He’s lost his mother, his brother is a violent druggy in rehab, and his father either ignores him or yells at him. Kim and Jeff’s awkward budding adolescent friendship isn’t Romeo meets Juliet, but it’s enough validation for each of them to warily, tenderly begin living the days they have.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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