Some years ago, a book titled Fat is a Feminist Issue was published, and it caused quite a stir. The author contended that women gained weight intentionally so as not to be “seen”; that is, they grow layers of fat to hide behind so men won’t judge them on their looks, or worse, attack them physically because they lack the control to resist an attractive female. Shannon Geier’s play Fat, currently presented by her theatre company ‘because why not’ does treat avoirdupois as a woman’s issue all right, but not for the reasons given in the book. Rather, the subject is all about outer beauty and the quest for perfection according to society’s standards.
Geier makes the point in her notes on the play that “obesity is the last bastion of ridicule….[and] the message that is repeatedly perpetuated is that thin is better.” She notes that obesity is also associated with heart disease, diabetes and 1/3 of all cancers. So, being overweight isn’t just a philosophical subject, but can also be, literally, a matter of life and death. Her characters represent various types of non-acceptance through total acceptance, although the latter is truly represented in only one character, Vanessa (Patricia Duffin), who asserts that she is healthy and that is all she cares about. She still comes across as defensive, though, or is that just our reading a stereotype into her arguments? It’s hard to say.
Amy (Taleesha Caturah) has a career, a good looking (and thin) husband, Joel (Jeff Kargus), and a healthy (and skinny) daughter, Tara (Alicen Moser). It would seem she “has it all,” except she is overweight. She’s not grotesquely fat in the conventional sense, but she is heavy and shows signs of compulsive eating. Her husband and daughter worry about her, and all her accomplishments fade in the mirror where all she sees is her unattractive body. Among her group of friends who gather regularly for girls’ nights, there are various degrees of weight differences from quite large to barely heavy, but all are equally obsessed with diets and exercise. One of them, Kelly (Laura Singleton) has been talking for three years about a gym she’s building in her house, but it is never completed. They dish and play cards, as all “girls” do, but the theme of losing weight is always front and center.
We meet Amy’s family when Tara is in fourth grade, and Moser plays her from there through her pre-teens and teens with great assurance. As time goes on, Amy’s size becomes more and more an aspect in her life, her marriage, and even her motherhood. Her husband argues that she’s setting a poor example for their daughter, while the daughter tends to go too far in the other direction because of fear of becoming like her mother. Ultimately, the center cannot hold, and the fallout is extreme.
Director Andrea Standby elicits mostly good to excellent performances from the cast, but there are awkward problems with the staging. The Chapel is nobody’s idea of an ideal playing space, but if one chooses to use the floor, changing scenes can be less awkward than it becomes here. Many of those scenes are quite short, so I’m not sure it’s necessary for all the actors to leave the room after each one or to shove props around as much as they do. There are also some weak parts in the structure of the play, but it has good bones, and if Geier chooses to continue to work on it, I think it can be even better than it is right now.
Standouts besides Moser whose emotional range is impressive include Kargus who works particularly well with Caturah. The two have a scenery-shaking fight, and it is so realistic, one feels like a voyeur even being a witness. The girlfriends do seem as if they genuinely like each other, and Singleton stands out with her natural, conversational delivery. Her part is probably the shortest in the show, but she makes an impression. Olivia Pilon who plays two roles, Jessa and Katie, is heart-wrenching as Jessa, a fat girl who is bullied to the point of being brutalized by Tara and her crowd of high school mean (thin) girls. Darrious Varner also has various roles that he pulls off with aplomb and Parvuna Sulaiman, billed only as “Thin Girl,” demonstrates that her recent able performance as the title character in Yasmina’s Necklace was no fluke. These latter two are also responsible for much of the comedy herein, and despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the play is also quite amusing.
Besides set “changes,” other production aspects are fine, and to me, this production is an excellent early effort for this company. There is a lot to see and even more to ponder and discuss afterward.
Fat is at the Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr., St. Louis, MO 63105, through March 11, 2017. For more information, you may visit www.fattheplaybwntheatre.bpt.me