Now and then, the unique aspect of live theater -- the fact that these are real people onstage and not just flickering images -- hits home with unexpected power. If you see an overweight woman on TV or in a movie, it could likely be Tyra Banks or Sharon Stone in a fat suit that's easily stripped away at the end of each day's shooting.
That's not the case in the confrontationally titled Fat Pig, now at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre in Akron. Written by Neil LaBute, who owns a burgeoning theatrical franchise specializing in callous and misogynistic characters (his 1997 film In the Company of Men still raises feminist hackles), this play centers on a Rubenesque young woman named Helen, who is played by the lovely but definitely not anorexic Jenna Messina.
The audience must deal not only with Helen's issues, as she pursues a romantic relationship with slim Tom, but also with the impact of the play on the actress herself. Fortunately, even though there are a number of fat jokes and jabs, one never has the sense that either Helen or Jenna is a victim. And that is only one of the many triumphs in this must-see evening.
Helen meets Tom while she's happily devouring pizza (he's eating a salad) at a crowded café, and they are attracted to each other by their shared wit. When Helen offers Tom one of her prepackaged pudding cups, he starts eating and then says, "That's the first time I've put something in my mouth without looking at the back of the package like a Bible scholar!"
As Tom and Helen grow closer, the pressure increases at his office for Tom to reveal his new girlfriend to his lean and mean co-workers. In particular, svelte and pretty Jeannie (Alanna Romansky) wants to know why Tom is no longer interested in her, while the amiably cretinous Carter (a deliciously snarky Tony Weaver) just wants to dig up dirt. Of course, the news gets out that Tom is dating a zaftig woman, and events begin to spiral out of control.
The playwright imbues Helen with clear-eyed honesty about her body and image of herself. Messina is tone-perfect in the role, laughing at herself -- perhaps a bit too much -- but never losing her self-respect in the process. As Tom, Sean Derry writhes on the pinpoint of pursuing his blossoming love at the risk of losing his status as a player and stud in his social circle.
These tensions, both comical and serious, are enhanced by director Sean McConaha, who invites his actors to drain every nanosecond of freshening affection as well as psychic agony from their scenes. As a result, there is almost more going on in the negative spaces -- the silences between lines -- than in the lines themselves.
The audience, laughing uproariously and nervously, finds itself ensnared as weak Tom and vulnerable Helen slide inexorably into their thoroughly credible concluding scene. And the moral of the story? Fat chance. See it and decide for yourself.