PITTSFIELD — Director Rob Ruggiero was 43 when he first directed David Lindsay-Abaire's "Kimberly Akimbo" at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn., where Ruggiero is producing artistic director.
Now, 11 years later, he is returning to the play, this time for Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., and with a different actress in the leading role — Debra Jo Rupp.
"I'm 54 and 11 years later the heart resonates more. Then, the play was a comedy with a heart. Now, it feels like heartfelt comedy." Ruggiero said over a BLT sandwich at a downtown Pittsfield eatery a healthy walk from the St. Germain Stage at BSC's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, where the edgy comedy has begun previews. The official opening is 3 p.m. Sunday, June 19.
Ruggiero readily admits to being an unabashed fan of Lindsay-Abaire's writing. In addition to "Kimberly Akimbo," he's directed Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rabbit Hole" (2008) and "The Good People" (2015) at TheaterWorks, and "Wonder of the World" for Barrington Stage in 2006, the last time Ruggiero directed at BSC.
"First," Ruggiero said, explaining the playwright's appeal, "there is his sense of humor. He also writes like people talk, really talk, not like we think people talk.
"He also can be fantastically twisted. You either get him or you don't and I get him."
What attracted Ruggiero most to doing "Kimberly Akimbo" again was the opportunity to work with Rupp, who, as the Kimberly of the title, plays a teenage girl from Secaucus, N.J., who is suffering from a rare disorder that is aging her rapidly.
"[Debra] has such a reputation for being a gifted comedic actress," Ruggiero said. "She's perfect for this role."
The two met at a BSC party 10 years ago. Ruggiero had just finished "Wonder of the World," Rupp was rehearsing Jean Anouilh's "Ring Around the Moon." Years later, she brought "Becoming Dr. Ruth" to TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn. — where Ruggiero is producing artistic director — for a pre-Off-Broadway run. The show, directed by Julianne Boyd, had premiered in 2012 at BSC's St. Germain Stage with another title. In 2014, Ruggiero directed Rupp in "Annapurna" at TheaterWorks.
"Rob and I work really well together," Rupp said between bites of her own BLT. "We hear the play the same way. He does a really good job at keeping these characters as people."
Lindsay-Abaire says he had no interest in writing a medical drama when he began work on "Kimberly Akimbo." "[I wanted to tell the story of] a girl desperately trying to live a normal life despite the ever-present specter of her own mortality," Lindsay-Abaire writes in his introduction to the play.
The seed, he says, was a comment by a friend who described his niece as "amazing so wise! She's two months going on 80 years old!"
" because I'm such a literal-minded person," Lindsay-Abaire writes, "I immediately pictured a tiny old woman trapped in the body of an infant "
Lindsay-Abaire also remembered having seen, years earlier, a documentary about progeria, a disease that causes premature aging in children. And while he acknowledges that progeria isn't the stuff of comedy, nevertheless, Lindsay-Abaire writes, "I couldn't let go of the idea of a child beyond her years contending with the everyday challenges of growing up while simultaneously dealing with the physical challenges of growing old."
"It's a nightmare," Rupp said. "I'm a just-turned-65-year-old actress playing a just-turned-16-year-old girl.
"I've watched (John Hughes' iconic 1984 teen-coming-of-age comedy) 'Sixteen Candles' over and over again. I've talked a lot to my housekeeper's daughter."
The challenge, Rupp said, is "walking that fine line between humor and keeping these characters real.
"What is so helpful is that [Lindsay-Abaire] gives you the rhythm for your character."
"David really gives you the road map," Ruggiero said, "His writing is immediate, of the moment. If he gets too thoughtful, it all slows down. People will get up and go home.
"The humor here is in the truth. Truth is funny."
Ruggiero and Rupp agree the previews will be instructive and meaningful.
"Previews are like a rehearsal for me," Rupp said, "only with an audience."
"For me," said Ruggiero, "previews are the beginning of another part of the process. You learn so much with an audience."
"This is a challenge," Rupp acknowledged. "Rob has done a really good job at keeping these characters as people.
"I wanted to do a comedy. This is a comedy with heart."
ON STAGE ...
What: Barrington Stage Company's "Kimberly Akimbo" by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Rob Ruggiero
When: Now through July 16 (press opening — 3 p.m., June 19). Evenings — Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday, Saturday, Sunday at 3 (no 3 p.m, performance June 16, 18)
Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Mass.
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; at box office — 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass.