BWW Reviews: GroundWorks Theatre's FAT PIG at Darkhorse Theatre
Amanda Lamb gives such a stunningly real performance as the heroine in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig - now onstage at Nashville's Darkhorse Theatre in a well-paced and sensitively directed production from Paul J. Cook for GroundWorks Theatre - that it's hard not to confuse the actress and her character or to know where one ends and the other begins.
Helen is clearly attractive, intelligent, funny and brimming with bravado and self-confidence and it's quite easy to assume that Amanda Lamb possesses all those same attributes. Certainly, she is a versatile actress (previously, we'd only seen her as the good Baptist woman who is the matriarch of the gospel singing group in A Sanders Family Christmas at Chaffin's Backstage at the Barn over the holiday season), but who knew how revelatory this performance would be? In fact, Lamb's virtuoso portrayal of Helen May well be the most courageous turn by an actress on a local stage this season. At the very least, it's something audiences will talk about for months to come. She's really that good - and hers is a performance that should not be missed; yet, so are the performances of the other three players in Labute's play about contemporary manners and morals.
Labute's play, which might best be termed a dramatic comedy, unflinchingly takes a look at our society's preoccupation with physical beauty and its barely shielded prejudices and bigotry. Unrelenting in its examination, almost shocking in its gritty realism and cringe-worthy in its deft blending of comedy and pathos...Fat Pig might actually be the "nicest" script from Labute to date. At once, it is acerbic and biting, yet oftentimes it's almost heartwarmingly sweet. Often accused of being sexist and misogynistic (criticism that's been heaped on him since the debut of In the Company of Men), you don't see any of that in Fat Pig. What you do see, however, is an unsettling and laser-sharp dissection of what makes people so viciously revile overweight people. Labute never goes for the easy way out in his script, effectively skirting the pat conclusion while delivering a play that is in no way maudlin or overly sentimental, although a lesser playwright could easily have served that up.
In the play, Tom, a young, attractive, upwardly mobile business executive has a chance encounter with Helen, a young, attractive and rather heavy young woman, who is full of life despite the fact that you'd expect otherwise given the fact that she is a librarian (or "printed word technician," as Tom deems her). Their serendipitous meeting and the light-hearted banter of their subsequent conversation allows Tom to realize something: Helen might well be everything he's ever looked for in a woman. And so, despite trepidations and his own lingering prejudices, Tom asks Helen out and the two embark on a sweetly crafted romance.
Pitfalls abound, however, particularly those created by Tom's friends and coworkers, Carter and Jeannie. Carter, who is Tom's closest male pal at the office, is affable enough, but his cruel jokes about people, in general, and women and fat people, in particular, pepper his every conversation. His sophomoric sense of humor foreshadows his reprehensible actions when he discovers that Tom is actually interested in Helen and his second act admonition to his friend to consider his reputation isn't surprising. Jeannie, an accountant who works in Tom's office and was once his romantic interest, weighs in with her own take on the possibilities of Tom's romance with "the fat bitch" and her caustic remarks are even more distasteful because they come from a woman.
What makes Fat Pig so successful as literature is Labute's language. It's definitely on-target and is as real as anything you will hear walking down the street, standing online for a movie or trying to find your seat on an airplane. You may even hear yourself among Labute's four cleverly written characters, for whatever good or bad that can possibly mean. Despite all their misgivings and the horrid things that come from their mouths, you find it hard to totally dislike either Carter or Jeannie - and Tom, despite his obvious flaws and weaknesses, is generally a very likable fellow whose inner turmoil is all the more believable because of the way his character is written. In fact, Helen, with her big appetites for good food and old movies and her gently self-effacing manner and a generous dose of self-deprecating humor, is the most centered character in the piece. Helen is the only one who truly knows who she is and what she wants out of life, and who refuses to accept the mantle society wants to heap on her simply because of her physical weight.
What makes Fat Pig so successful as live theatre, particularly in this production from GroundWorks, is the unerring work of Cook and his four exceptionally capable actors, who bring those characters to life so effectively onstagE. Lamb provides the play's heart and soul with her brave, confident choices as Helen. In her first scene, she's flirty and amusing and in the play's final scene, she is heartbreakingly genuine - and in between, she runs the full gamut of emotions.
Nashville theatre newcomer Michael Coursey, as Tom, gives a plaintively honest and altogether sensitive reading of his character, giving Lamb the perfect foil for her performance. Their interaction is so true-to-life that you can't help but be pulled into their relationship and the chemistry between the two is palpable. Coursey bravely plays Tom without any hint of artifice that is both refreshing and, somehow, kind of horrifying in its depth.
As Carter, Wilhelm Peters is perfectly smarmy and snarky, while maintaining his own high level of craftsmanship in his portrayal. Despite his many shortcomings, it's hard to not like Carter (or to find yourself laughing, however nervousl, at his comments), so compelling is Peters' multi-dimensional performance. Lauren Atkins, as Tom's spurned lover Jeannie, is perfectly cast and her line delivery is brittle and frank, yet underscored by insecurity and the character's obvious need for validation. Like Peters, Atkins has to walk a very fine line, and she does so admirably.
Cook's direction is fluid and presents Labute's play at a nicely conceived pace that makes the plot come so fully to life before you. It is very clear that he and his actors get it. They understand the script - what the playwright is trying to say - and they effectively translate that to the audience. Don't believe me? Go see for yourself.
- Fat Pig. By Neil LaBute. Directed by Paul J. Cook. Produced by Megan Murphy and Jack E. Chambers. Presented by GroundWorks Theatre, at Darkhorse Theatre, Nashville. Through March 13. For details, call (615) 262-5485 or visit the company website at www.groundworkstheatre.com.