Kimberly Akimbo

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Theater Review – Kimberly Akimbo at 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Treading the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy challenges any thespian. The cast and crew of 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters did so brilliantly this April. They selected the perfect script in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo (directed by Gabrielle Affleck) to showcase their skills.

Phyllis Josephson delivered an inspiring performance as Kimberly: a teenager suffering from an incurable disease. The nature of the disorder compounded the tragedy of her situation. This malady caused her to age four-and-a-half times as quickly as a normal adolescent. Ms. Josephson flawlessly expressed the mannerisms and speech inflections of a 16 year old. In an exhibition of her range, she also acted the part of a heart attack victim. After the show I didn’t know if it more appropriate to send her flowers or take her out for ice cream.

Ms. Josephson unveiled her true forte in the emotional scenes with Kimberly’s alcoholic father, Buddy. (Very convincingly played by Zach Palmer.) She cowered like a scared little girl, but also lashed out venomously when he asked embarrassing questions to her love interest, Jeff. (Exceptionally played by Tim Schumann) Palmer’s comedic tirade against the evils of Dungeons and Dragons evened out the scene nicely.

After witnessing Kori Rife’s portrayal of Buddy’s hypochondriac wife, Pattie, I could understand his issues with the bottle. Ms. Rife played the role of a narcissistic, self-obsessed, pregnant woman while still delivering solid comedic chops. In her first appearance on stage she revealed the depth of her talent. Pattie struggled to dictate a message to her unborn child into a tape recorder. The bandages which covered her fingers, due to perceived carpal tunnel syndrome, prevented her from hitting the record button. She slapped it with her hands, and then tried her tongue, and eventually her chin.

Lisa Croce played an exceptional Aunt Debra. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I know Ms. Croce personally.) I haven’t witnessed a devious character played with such humor. She mixed the comedy and criminality very well. I liked how she dragged a mailbox involved in Debra’s scheme across the length of the stage.

2nd Stage featured an unusual set-up. Upon entering, the audience walked through the performance area to their chairs. Seating was limited, and the room got cramped, but I didn’t mind. I liked being up-close. At times I felt part of the show.

In terms of the play itself, I thought it extremely well-written. It began with a family on the verge of disintegration. In spite of the alcoholic father, the self-absorbed mother, terminally ill child, and homeless aunt with a criminal record the comic yuks didn’t stop. That’s an astounding accomplishment from a gifted playwright.

I’ve got bad news and good news. I’ll give you the bad news first. Unfortunately for theater goers, Kimberly Akimbo completed its run at 2nd Stage this past Saturday. Now the good news: the performers actively participate in other community theater projects. Based on the range they showed in this play, you can’t go wrong seeing them in either a comedy or tragedy. I hope we’re lucky and get to see them in a show that fuses the two like Kimberly Akimbo.