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'Uma Kimball's' passion: a plea for compassion

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'Uma Kimball's' passion: a plea for compassion


It’s tempting to dismiss “The Shriveled Arm of Uma Kimball,” at Performance Network, as a too-verbose, too-symbolic surreal-expressionist-fantasy.

Yet that would be selling playwright Melissa Martin miles short. Ditto director Jim Posante and his three-person cast, who profoundly energize this scorching probe of human dreams, hopes and denials.

“Uma Kimball” places the audience in a neo-Biblical framework - in Nowheresville, Pa. A flood of Old Testament proportions has submerged a small town, forcing beauty-shop owner Zito (Bart Bund) and assistant Uma Kimball (Kazzie Brown) to flee to the second floor, Uma’s bedroom. The pink-trimmed room is a cathedral of sorts, filled with angels - sculpted angels, an angel mobile, even a teddy angel. Outside, crashes of thunder and lightning seem to herald the imminent end of the world.

Uma, a 37-year-old virgin, regards herself “a freak” due to a paralyzed left arm. She’s given to dropping to her knees and praying to “Mother Mary,” whom she synthesizes with her own dead mother: “Mama my seraphim, snatch me away when I die! Make me an angel in the sky!”

Handsome, self-absorbed Zito is immersed in plans of turning all women into Cinderellas: “I don’t want to die without changing the world!” Enter (though the window) Miss Hometown Pennsylvania (Andrea Maio), a beauty queen who coos, “This is my time,” and calls frumpy Uma “a little troll.”

The play indulges in folderol about a “magic makeup kit” that can transform any woman into a goddess so long as users do a ritual dance, chanting the names of assorted conglomerates (“Estee Lauder, Estee Lauder...”). It’s a sharp send-up of the beauty trap, but beneath the satire “Uma Kimball” is a howl of anguish.

The issue of touch obsesses lonely Uma, who vainly loves oblivious Zito. She calls her angels “the only things that remind me that somebody (her mother) loved me once, that somebody touched me.”

Miss Hometown on the other hand has been touched too often: “I want to wash and wash until I’m clean.... No one will ever make me dirty again!” Uma, magically turned into a beauty, takes Zito to bed in a horrid sex ritual riddled with sardonic contempt. Martin’s characters meet separate fates that could well be interpreted as Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

This is an exhausting, driven show; Posante and his actors dredge up all the pain and venom roiling under its fantasy trappings. Lurking always is a desperate plea to touch, touch, touch: Don’t let us wither from neglect or misuse.

Brown changes so dramatically from mousy Uma to lovely, angry Uma she could be an avenging angel for loners everywhere. Yet Maio erupts with comparable rage as the dreadfully misused Miss Hometown. Cavorting like Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood, Bund’s Zito is an arch-demon, charming women into impregnable cul-de-sacs of self-loathing.

Vitriolic emotions fly so ferociously that “Uma Kimball” perhaps can’t be absorbed in at a single sitting. Still, it’s theater at its high-voltage best: half-crazed, wholly absorbing, jolting the brain and impaling the heart.

"The Withered Arm of Uma Kimball" runs through Aug. 13 at Performance Network, 408 W. Washington St. Curtain is 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. For information call 663-0681.