The worst was not the worst. But it sure looked like the worst! Ryan Rilette, artistic director of Southern Rep, had fled Katrina at four o'clock in the morning on the Sunday before the storm hit. Then, like everyone else, he was glued to CNN -- in his case, at his mother's house in Houston. One day, in one of the panning shots of Canal Place (where Southern Rep is located on the third floor), Rilette saw black smoke pouring out the windows. Saks Fifth Avenue department store on the first floor had caught fire. Disaster scenarios raced through Rilette's mind. Fire damage. Smoke damage. Water-sprinkler damage.
By some miracle, Southern Rep escaped all of the above. And now, after many adventures on the road of exile, Rilette is opening the company's first post-Katrina show, Kimberly Akimbo, with a knockout cast that includes some of his favorite collaborators -- among them, Becky Allen, Lara Grice, Dane Rhodes and Veronica Russell.
Kimberly Akimbo is a dark comedy. That's no surprise, since David Lindsay-Abaire has made a name for himself as a purveyor of grotesque, but humorous situations. In this one, for instance, a 16-year-old named Kimberly (played by Becky Allen -- yes, you read that right, played by Becky Allen!) suffers from progeria. Progeria, as most of you no doubt know, is a rare disease that accelerates the aging process.
A medical nightmare of this sort is vintage Lindsay-Abaire. Fuddy Meers, another of his comedies, is the way a character who has had a stroke pronounces the phrase "funny mirrors".
In any event, prematurely aged Kimberly has a family for whom the word "dysfunctional" is hopelessly inadequate. Her mother (Veronica Russell) is a hypochondriac. Her father (Dane Rhodes) is a drunk. While her aunt (Lara Grice) is a con artist. This weird assortment of misfits received such accolades as "the comedy of the year," according to the New York Times. On the other coast, The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle gave the play one of its annual awards. Kimberly Akimbo, in other words, is a bold and intriguing choice to re-launch a theater.
"I wanted to show everyone that we're not going to change what we do," explains Rilette. "Some people think we're crazy for taking chances like this, but new plays are what we're about. I'd like every play to be a world premiere. Next year, that's what we're aiming for."
Commendable, but will Kimberly Akimbo resonate with audiences still reeling from from Katrina?
"I think it will," says Rilette. "Not in an in-your-face way. It's not about a natural calamity. But look, most of us just spent a lot of time with our families. We know what it's like to be surrounded by crazy people! And little details kept popping out at us. Kimberly keeps asking: 'Why can't we just be normal?' Meanwhile, here we all are, not quite sure we know what normalcy is anymore. Also, Kimberly is aware of her impending death, while Katrina forced us all to realize how fragile life is. Everything can be taken away.
"There's another tie-in with New Orleans, as well. Lindsay-Abaire was one of the first winners of the Tennessee Williams Festival one-act play contests."
Relevance was not why Rilette chose the play, however. He says he was looking through some plays, trying to find one that would fit our actors. Offhandedly, he flipped through Kimberly Akimbo. Suddenly, he realized he was hearing certain actor's voices saying the lines. It is those actors, who are, in fact, playing the roles -- with the exception of Rhodes, who stepped in when Gavin Mahlie died a week before rehearsals started. Aside from his acting talent, Rhodes was perhaps also connected to the play by bonds of fate. Grice (who had already been cast) got a trailer when her Lakeview home was flooded. At Rhodes' invitation, she had put the trailer on his Gretna driveway.
Even though the worst was not the worst -- as Rilette feared it might be -- things are certainly more difficult than those halcyon days of before. Pre-K, Rilette had two full-time employees and three part timers to help him. Now, he's artistic director and Lord High Everything Else. He lays out the copy for programs and posters. Then he hustles over to Kinko's to run them off. He writes the grant applications. He sells the tickets. He even uses his own minivan to haul lumber to build the set. Oh, and in his spare time, he directed the show, as well.
"Katrina knocked us for loop. Now, as we finally kick off Southern Rep's 20th season, we've had to cut back on everything, everything -- even the actor's salaries," laments Rilette. "That disturbs me, but we're trying to stay alive." Kimberly Akimbo
Starring Becky Allen, Lara Grice, Kevin Marshall, Dane Rhodes, Veronica Russell
8 p.m. Wed.-Sat., May 3-6; 3 p.m. Sun., May 7; through May 28
Southern Rep Theater, 333 Canal St., The Shops At Canal Place, Third Floor, 522-6545; www.southernrep.com
- Cheryl Gerber
- Lara Grice, Veronica Russell, Kevin Marshall, Becky Allen and Dane Rhodes discuss a scene from Kimberly Akimbo with director Ryan Rilette (back to camera).