By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Dec 08, 2004 at 5:09 AM

{image1} The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre continues its season with a light but mildly provocative contemporary comedy. With interesting three-dimensional characters and pleasantly witty modern dialogue, David Lindsay-Abaire's "Kimberly Akimbo" plays like a pilot to a really good sitcom that never got produced. Chamber Theatre co-founder Ruth Schudson stars as a 16-year-old Kimberly Levaco, a precocious girl suffering from Progeria, a disease that makes her body age at an accelerated rate. She's 16, but her body is 72. She finds herself psychologically coming of age as an adult while realizing she must come to terms with the fact that she won't live to enjoy it for very long.

Raising a daughter with such an overwhelming condition isn't easy, especially for Kimberly's emotionally underdeveloped parents. Tami Workentin plays her hypochondriac mother, whose obsession complicates her pregnancy. Her father, played by Dan Katula, is an alcoholic service station attendant whose concern for her is limited by his complete lack of any practical knowledge about responsible parenting.

In spite of her obvious physical limitations, Kimberly attempts a normal social life as best as possible. She manages to get a library study date with a shy, geeky classmate Jeff, played with considerable flair by UW-Whitewater student Chris Klopatek. Awkwardness between Kimberly and Jeff takes on its own kind of grace, only to be hopelessly complicated by the unexpected appearance of her aunt. Carol Hirschi has what just might be the funnest role in the whole production as Kimberly's crazy, homeless Aunt Debra. Still, Hirschi seems vaguely bored with the role. It's almost as though she's aching for something more substantial to sink her talents into.

Schudson has proved over numerous shows throughout her lengthy career that she is a remarkable actress. Her portrayal of Kimberly in this production is no exception. While she does an admirable job of portraying a 16-year-old in the body of an older woman, her cadence, inflection and speed in delivering the lines doesn't work. There's a very definite style of speech unique to teenage girls of this generation that Schudson is missing, and it drags the production a bit.

Edging in the other direction, Dan Katula manages a performance that adds a contemporary realism to his portrayal of Kimberly's father. He may not sound like he's an Italian from New Jersey, but what he lacks there, he more than makes up for in the depth of his performance. He manages a charismatic, thoroughly likeable portrayal of blue-collar subsistence. This is quite an accomplishment considering the character is an adulterous alcoholic.

The three major plots feel very much like three separate episodes of comedy a little too sophisticated for network. Debra has a crazy idea for making extra cash and needs Kimberly and Jeff to pull it off. She also knows a little too much about Kimberly's parents' past for their comfort. Kimberly and Jeff have a strange kind of friendship that just might turn romantic, but how does that play into the fact that, at 16, Kimberly is very close to her own death? And how will everyone handle Kimberly's birthday, knowing full well that it means she's well into the final stages of her life?

With themes as dark and somber as those covered in "Kimberly Akimbo," it's quite successful in that it manages to maintain the feel of a lighthearted comedy throughout. Judging from the way it was written, however, one gets the impression that playwright David Lindsay-Abaire was reaching for something just a bit more profound than either the script of the production manage to capture. Even still, it is a thoroughly entertaining evening of stage comedy well-worth seeing.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's Production of "Kimberly Akimbo" plays through Dec. 19 at the Studio Theater of the Broadway Theater Complex. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at (414) 291-7800.