Fat’s All, Folks

Allan Appel PhotoA far-flung daughter calls a mom just before a visit home. Mom says she’s lost a whole lot of weight. When the daughter arrives home, she finds mom not only skinny—but also another person. Literally.

That image, by turns Body Snatcher-ish and funny, was the genesis for Laura Jacqmin‘s new play January Joiner, which has its world premiere at Long Wharf this week.

Jacqmin (pictured) frequently builds her plays from an initial image like that, she said during an interview at Book Trader, where she used to hang out happily during her days as a Yale undergraduate.

That image is not a gleam of light or a pattern of color as a visual artist might see, but story-like.

After coming up with the image, she asks herself what kind of world would characters experiencing such a story live in.

“I never start a play without knowing how it looks,” she said.

The “look” of January Joiner turns out to be a surreal upscale weight-loss spa in Florida. It comes complete with a vending machine that dispenses not only Twix and other candies to secretly backsliding dieters but also serrated knives to use them to cut off fat in large slices.

Since she received her MFA from Ohio University, near her native Cleveland, Jacqmin’s career has taken off. The titles of her other plays—Ski Dubai and Dental Society Midwinter Meeting—give some sense of the quirky dramatic worlds she creates.

There’s always that image. In 2008 she wrote And When We Awoke There Was Light . It won Jacqmin the $25,000 Wasserstein Prize  for an emerging female playwright. 

That play began with the image of a girl meeting someone online, a young man from Uganda, who turns out not to be who he seems.

Jacqmin is one of those writers who cannot praise enough the collaborative process of theater in which actors and director and the tech staff—they were busy working on the vending machine at the time of the interview—create the final play as much as the playwright.

Nevertheless she is after big, impressive game.  Muchbigger even than Myrtle and Terry, her two five-footish protagonists, sisters in their 30s who weigh into the spa at the beginning of the play at a combined 500 or so pounds.

She paraphrased a playwriting teacher who said that in every play “there is the dumb plot, and then there is what the play is about.”

“I like plays that try to go deeper than dumb plot line,” she said.

A lot deeper. In the case of January Joiner, she described Act One as physical horror and Act Two as an exploration of psychological horror. What links the acts is Jacqmin’s interest in questions that arise from, for example, post-holiday binging commercial pitches to join fitness centers. Ads like: “A new year, a new you.”

A “new you”? Meaning exactly what?

As Jacqmin sipped tea she wondered, disarmingly, “What if the shell of a person [as a result of serious weight loss] is different, but everything is the same?”

Might that not be a genuine disappointment, even fear for the person who puts in so much effort and money in the process and doesn’t harvest a radically changed life? she suggested.

The fear for that daughter in Jacqmin’s initial image, or a partner or friend of someone who’s going down this radical weight loss path is: What if, indeed, the dieter becomes a different person.

The magic of theater, and in this instance Jacqmin’s sultry Florida spa, is that that can happen right before your eyes.

Seventeenth-century French philosopher Rene Descartes, who explored the mind-body problem, would be at home doing stretches and crunches at the facility Jacqmin has built in her play.

Previews begin Jan. 9th. The play runs through Feb. 10 at Long Wharf’s Stage II, with Long Wharf Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting at the helm.

The cast includes Ashlie Atkinson, Anthony Bowden, Tonya Glanz, Meredith Holzman, Maria-Chirstina Oliveras, and Daniel Stewart Sherman.

No credits were available for the vending machine.

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posted by: leibzelig on January 7, 2013  4:55pm

Stage II is the perfect place to view this play, since those of us who are carrying a few (or more than a few) extra pounds and who will have to shoehorn ourselves into those seats will have sympathy with some of the characters in the play. By the way, the renovation of the Long Wharf Theatre Main Stage is wonderful and the seats much more comfortable than before. I hope a renovation, including humanizing those seats for those wider and/or taller than average, will come to Stage II quickly.