January Joiner Weighs in on Our Obsession With the Mighty Pound

By Amy J. Barry

Obesity is terrifying -- not only for obvious health reasons -- but in a culture that loathes fat and worships thinness, it can be a lonely and scary state of being.

 

In her new play January Joiner, Laura Jacqmin -- winner of the 2008 Wendy Wasserstein Prize for an emerging female playwright -- calls attention to what is both frightening and funny about our weight-obsessed culture, aptly subtitling it A Weight Loss Horror Comedy.

 

Premiering at Long Wharf Theatre, under the adept direction of Eric Ting, January Joiner examines the bizarre truth that although our fixation on body image has created a $40 billion dollar dieting industry, obesity has more than doubled worldwide since 1980 with the U.S. in the lead.

 

Jacqmin gives us a bird’s eye view of this societal phenomenon by focusing on three guests at a “high-end weight loss spa in sunny Florida” and their two trainers, who are chomping at the bit to whip them into shape.

 

Terry (Ashlie Atkinson) arrives at the spa with her sister Myrtle (Meredith Holzman) after Terry has suffered a near heart attack from schlepping around her almost 300 pounds. Myrtle insists that she is only there to give Terry moral support, but in fact, she, too, is overweight, and in denial. Everyone has food baggage and theirs is an anorexic mother whom they watched waste away in a hospital bed.

 

Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman) is a chunky, endearing repeat customer, who comes to the spa every summer for the companionship of other extra large types, but never loses any weight.

 

Brian (Anthony Bowden) and April (Tonya Glanz) are the trainers who start out as friendly and upbeat—but a darker, meaner side quickly rears its ugly head as they give their trainees all kinds of mixed messages. They ask them to repeat: “We are not fat, our fat is bad, but we’re not,” while implying that they really are bad, weak, and out of control.

 

Brian is a more sympathetic character than April. He at least has insight about his own motivations, and Bowden brings forth Brian’s complex humanity in his performance.

 

In a sharing exercise, Brian admits that the only way he felt he could rise above the poverty and dysfunction in his family was to make his body beautiful.

 

April, on the other hand, has no self-awareness and is emotionally shut down. Glanz has an unlikable role to play and she does it convincingly, dispassionately delivering such lines as “My insides might be totally f-d up but you can’t tell on the outside.”

An evil talking vending machine supplies the horror, enticing the characters at their weakest moments to purchase a Tastykake or Jelly Krimpet and instead delivers bloodied body limbs or sharp knives (for them to use to slice off their fat).

 

April and Brian give the guests a personal guarantee that by the end of their time at the spa, they won’t even recognize themselves. And that’s what ultimately happens to Terry.

 

After determinedly buckling down to her exercise and eating routines, the sweet, easygoing Terry, warmly played by Atkinson in Act I, is literally replaced in Act II by the lighter-weight Not Terry (Maria-Christina Oliveras), who doesn’t look anything like Terry, and is no longer the nice person that she was before shedding the pounds.

 

Even Myrtle doesn’t recognize her sister and insists she was taken by a zombie-like creature that appeared at the end of Act I. Not Terry is cold and self-absorbed, driving home the point that losing a lot of weight can change a person on the inside as well as the outside because, as in Terry’s case, it changed her core values. Her looks, her weight become more important than her relationships and compassion for other people.

 

She no longer wants to identify with Darnell, who confessed his attraction to her earlier. She and April drives the happy-go-lucky guy, who was perfectly OK with himself before receiving their cruel criticisms, to a desperate act weighed down with the very weights that were supposed to lighten his load.

 

The sterile, hi-tech spa designed by Narelle Sissons and snappy exercise outfits by costume designer Dana Botez set the perfect tone for the action. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, in which the character’s shadows appear larger than life, cleverly emphasizes their distorted perceptions of their bodies. 

 

All in all, January Joiner succeeds as both a very funny and very disturbing play -- and that’s no easy feat.

 

This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.



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