One Final Ride | An Exit Interview with Tony Winner Bonnie Milligan as She Say Goodbye to Aunt Debra in KIMBERLY AKIMBO


Tony Winner Bonnie Milligan in Kimberly Akimbo | Photo: Michaelah Reynolds/Theatrely

Kobi Kassal
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April 28, 2024 8:45 AM

It’s just like HR, but the fun kind! Before Bonnie Milligan takes her final bow as Aunt Deb in Kimberly Akimbo today, I caught up with her backstage at the Booth Theatre to reflect on the last three years. Milligan has been with the much beloved musical since its inception and Off-Broadway run in the fall of 2021 and today she says goodbye. 

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Theatrely: The week before you opened at The Atlantic in 2021, I asked you what emotions came to mind when you thought about opening the show and you said gratitude and joy. So I ask you the same question now: what emotions come to mind when you start to think about your final performance?

Bonnie: It feels....I mean... It feels like all the things, overwhelming in so many ways. Overwhelming with joy, with gratitude to repeat myself still. It's also been an intense process because there is so much of my own personal grief wrapped up in this show. The show has brought me a lot of healing in many ways, and such an outlet to work through and process grief and letting go and grabbing life by the balls. It has been such a blessing; it’s given me so many gifts since 2021. I feel like change is hard no matter what you are doing or where you are in life so I am embracing that. It’s bittersweet if you will. 

Let’s walk down memory lane. I’m curious, when was the first time you heard about Kimberly Akimbo. Take me back to the beginning. 

I got an email, I think, it was in February of 2020, just asking if I would be interested. They weren't having auditions yet, but in that email they attached the play as a PDF. There was no material yet for the musical, but I was told about it. Of course I know both Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire and I was very excited at the prospect of working on a new piece with them. Reading the play, it was so funny and so complicated. I feel like you don't always see that level of complication, especially in musicals. I was like, this would be so great to sink my teeth into so of course I said yes to whenever it comes around. 

And then off to The Atlantic

So the show was originally supposed to be in the summer of 2020. I had gotten an appointment to audition and I had to learn “Better” and the first library scene that Debra does with Seth and Kim. My dad had died a week earlier so I was in no headspace to put myself on tape. It was the start of the pandemic, everything was shut down. Cut to May, my agent had checked in and I still was just not in a place to tape so I asked if I could have just one more extension. I finally got around to doing it my self-tape in May and heard back immediately and booked it, the feedback I got was something along the lines of this was worth the wait. And then there was no callback, no discussion with the team — I had never met Jessica Stone or Danny Mefford. It was a “you will have a job eventually” and I didn’t know what that meant, it was May of 2020. I eventually Zoomed with Jess Stone which was the first time we had ever met virtually right before rehearsals started in August of 2021 and she had told me there was ice skating in the show and they were going to be giving us a weeks worth of lessons. My friends know I am a horrible skater, and I think I lasted two days and then David wrote me out and had Debra banned from the ice!

Milligan photographed in 2021 | Rebecca J. Michelson/Theatrely

Could you tell this was a special piece before you even went into rehearsals?

I think I was just so excited to be back in a room with people, with actors, with writers, with the director. With the pandemic, it was so lonely and isolating and so much of our business is collaboration. The fact that we were coming back together in the room, we were collaborating again was so exciting. I love table work — I love asking questions, having the writers in the room to be able to utilize that resource. It was a beautiful room and being a person going through a grieving process, I was overwhelmed at times and I would have to leave the room and cry dealing with the subject matter and they were so gentle and kind with me and so collaborative in finding the right dial on where Debra was because I very much knew that I wanted to bring in a caring, loving, real aspect of her. Finding the dial on that as someone who had just lost someone, sometimes that got clouded and we had to figure out how much was Debra was trying to cling on to Kim versus how much was Bonnie clinging onto my dad. That it was a safe room and space to be an artist and to be a messy artist on this beautifully complicated show.

What was the initial audience reaction from downtown? 

I've never been so present and I think that so much of the message of the show is to be here in the now because we don't know what time we have left; we don't know what we have in this world, we just know that we have now. The show helped force you to stay present. And again, having gone through a period of time where the world stopped, it was just living for the beautiful moments that we had. It was overwhelming in a lot of ways, it felt emotional to be able to actually be back. The piece you could tell was so special because right off the bat it was folks from varying backgrounds and ages and all this different representation that found such a connection to the piece, it wasn't just one kind of group of people. It felt universal in a way that I hadn't quite experienced before. You just felt such a channel for something more important than all of us. There was catharsis happening in that space.

So when did you find out you were going to transfer to Broadway?

We found out the first week of January, we had a zoom with our producers and stage managers and the performing cast. We were told we were going to wait until the fall and it was so special because I got to watch these kids — they are not kids, they are young adults — make their Broadway debuts and that's been such a beautiful part of this process. I've only ever done one other show but to be part of the middle age of the cast and to get to feel like I'm a part of the beginning of these glorious careers that are unfolding before our eyes was moving in so many ways. 

So now we jump to rehearsals for the Broadway production. Now that you knew Aunt Deb, how excited were you to play around with what you had created downtown?

To be honest, there was a bit of trepidation walking into Broadway because our Off-Broadway production was so universally loved, of course the question was going to be will it still be magical in a larger venue. They also changed a bit of the show between the runs, wanting to give Kimmy more agency so that meant things did change. It wasn’t just walking in to recreate what we had downtown so there was something beyond just finding new ways to do the same thing, there were different things. Like I said, my favorite part is always the table work and the puzzle of it all so to return to that was awesome. We’re coming at it fresh and hoping to make it the best thing it can be. 

Now let’s get to Awards Season. What does your Tony mean to you?

It means the world. It's such validation, certainly from the industry. When I was younger and I was in school, there was so much “it may not happen for you because of the way you look, not because of your talent” and that was hard and that was rough. I’ve kind of fought my way on to Broadway, if you will. Even with Head Over Heels in 2018, to come back and say we should open our eyes to many more different types and bodies and minds and to feel so lovingly accepted by this community that I love so much — that I loved well before I got to be in it is wonderful. It was just so overwhelming to have my mom and my brother there with me. My mom did my self-tape with me for this show when I was at her house, she was my reader during one of the darkest times in my life. So to be like, wow, okay. It just feels incredible to be seen and appreciated

The Company | Photo: Michaelah Reynolds/Theatrely

You've been doing this on Broadway for almost 18 months at this point. Do you feel you're ready to say goodbye to Aunt Deb?

It's definitely both. My body is sore from hauling a mailbox and climbing through a window and toppling down onto a bean bag eight times a week for a year and a half. Some days and some weeks are harder than others. You know, Debra is really funny, but my approach to get into her psyche is that she comes from a lonely, desperate dark kind of place so having to dive into that over and over is hard.  It's been incredible to have been able to have so much asked of me in this show; so many times you do things and you are not asked to work at the top of your potential. It has been such a gift to be able to operate in such a high demanding space. Part of me is really sad to let that go and hope that the work I continue on from here still demands lots of me in many different ways. But it's a million feelings all at once.

I want to start with Victoria Clark. What do you think that final day on stage with her will be like?

I don't know how I'm going to do this. I think of certain things like when she's the old woman and she's leaving and says bye to Aunt Debra, she will be saying bye to me. The integrity of her work is so high and beautiful and dialed in and she is such a generous actor and a generous human. It's a delight to be on stage with such an artist and a human who is a dear, dear friend now. It's a thrill to get to watch that work up that close and to get to be part of it. She makes me better and I feel like I've learned so much that it will be devastating not to get to work every day with such a caliber of genius.

In terms of everybody else in your company, both on stage and off stage, and everyone has been involved, what will you miss most about seeing them every day at the booth?

Oh, gosh, I mean. Speaking of geniuses, Alli Mauzey Morsi who plays Patti has become such a dear, dear friend. And I mean nobody makes me laugh like Alli. Something could happen on stage and I just cannot recover because she's so funny and brilliant and kind and the most giving human. Steven Boyer is such a denius, the integrity of his work is unmatched. And the rest of them. I have watched them grow up; Justin Cooley was just 18 when we first met. I feel so protective of them. They're such brilliant lights and I just know they're going to have mega careers.

What advice do you have for future Aunt Debras?

I think what's important and this is my advice for anybody doing high comedy, is to find the truth of what's happening and approach it with integrity. You don't have to try to make Debra funny — the lines are there. The brilliance is in the writing. So you just have to show up and deliver it with your own truth that you've decided for her.

What do you think the biggest thing Kimberly Akimbo has taught you over the past three years?

I think the power of being present. The power of valuing the relationships and the people that we have in our life. Enjoy life and do something with life that you care about, that's what this show has taught me. Being grateful for whatever time I have with whoever I'm with or whatever I'm doing and to not be so forward focused. To just consciously take the time to be here..

I know you're going to get a little break and then pop into Titanic at City Center. Excited for that?

Oh my gosh, I'm so excited about that. The score is so beautiful and I just don't always get to sing like that. I'm excited to also be in a big ensemble piece!

If you have to sum up your entire experience of Kimberly Akimbo, what would that be?

Transformative, in every way. Personally, my career, emotionally…, It's a gift. 

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Kobi Kassal

Hailing from sunny South Florida, Kobi Kassal founded Theatrely (formerly Theatre Talk Boston) while attending Boston University. He is an avid theatre attender and can be found seeing a performance most nights of the week (in normal times!) He is interested in the cross section of theatre, popular culture, hospitality, and politics. He also loves a good bagel!

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