The new comedy "January Joiner" takes its title from those people who make New Year's resolutions to join a gym, eat healthier, and lose those holiday pounds. But the name has a disparaging subtext, implying these folks are destined to become "February Failures."
Playwright Laura Jacqmin has something weightier on her mind than Slim-Fast wisecracks.
"It's about transformation," she says during a recent break from rehearsals at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, where the play is having its world premiere. Staged by the theater's associate artistic director, Eric Ting, the work runs through Feb. 10.
"It's about what happens to us when a person close to us changes," she says, adding that it's not just about personal poundage but any type of dramatic change from cosmetic surgery to Alzheimer's.
"So much of it has to do with the question: Are we mourning for the person who has changed or ourselves? Maybe it's not our job to say whether that change is good or bad. We just have to come to terms with that change and sometimes that's a difficult process for us. And that's what happens in the second act.
The first act, she says, reminds audiences of the play's subtitle — "A Weight Loss Horror Comedy" — when an evil, haunted vending machine produces a few figurative and literal scares as the characters try to cope with the temptations of food. "The second act "is more of the psychological horror."
Jacqmin, a Yale University graduate who received her MFA from Ohio University, says the idea for the play began with the idea of a daughter calling her mother, with the mother saying, "I've lost a bunch of weight and I can't wait for you to see me."
"Then the daughter goes home, the door opens and her mother is a completely different person," says Jacqmin
The play evolved over time and now centers on two sisters in their 30s who go to a high-end weight loss boot camp — think of Canyon Ranch, with attitude. "They've both been shaped by the experience of weight when they were growing up," says Jacqmin. One sister remained home in Ohio and had a "cardiac episode," so her motivation is health-directed. The other who had moved away to New York City, returns to support her sister, and to lose a few pounds too.
"[Weight-loss programs] can go from being a good and healthy thing that everyone can support to being a dangerous thing where it becomes an obsession" says the playwright. "So how far is 'too far?'"
The idea of losing weight is just the starting point, she says. "The idea is really about transformation, that if you lose weight, you will be a better, happier and cleaner person? The play asks, 'Why can't we just be happy with ourselves? And what are we defining as success and what are we defining as failure?' "
Not Many Plays
Weight and body-image themes have been rare in plays, says director Ting. The handful of plays on the universal subject include: "My Fat Friend," Neil LaBute's "Fat Pig," Albert Innaurato's "The Transformation of Benno Blimpie," Wendy MacLeod's "Schoolgirl Figure," Jonathan Reynolds' "Fighting International Fat" and the recent off-Broadway play about a 500 pound-plus man, "The Whale" by Samuel D. Hunter
"January Joiner" doesn't present one specific solution or one idea on the subject, says director Ting. "It allows for a real rich consideration from a lot of different angles. The audience will not all come in or leave thinking the same thing. And weight loss is not going to be the main thing that, in then end, will be on the audience's minds."
The play is part of the theater's annual Global & the Arts,"which uses a Long Wharf production as an opportunity for further discussion. A symposium on the subject will be held Jan. 23. Parts of Yale Peabody Museum's recent exhibit "Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating" is being presented in the theater's lobby.
"The plays we produce [in association with the initiative] are not didactic or represent a current line of thought, and that's true of Laura's play," says Ting. "They're ultimately human stories that, in part, resonate with the theme of the symposium in some way.
Ting says "people seek the quick solution and that's where it becomes unhealthy — when we count on magic bullets to solve all of our problems, not realizing that there's as much a psychological element as a physical one. In the end, being genuinely healthy is about a commmited long term effort and that's the thing that's the hardest for everybody. That's why resolutions fail."
Ting says Jacqmin "has an uncanny ability to theatricalize what are real and personal struggles for us, whether it be weight and self image or Alzheimer's. The conversations are grounded in real questions, choices and real people."
Says Jacqmin, "One of the aims of the play is not to demonize the skinny and fat people ...It shows that we all have relationships with our bodies that are complicated. I don't think people at the end of the play will say, 'Gym-going is a bad thing.' I think it ends up being more than that. Self acceptance is a huge thing at the end — and the acceptance of other people."
JANUARY JOINER runs through Feb. 10 at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and an additional Sunday performance at 7 p.m. on Jan. 20. Tickets are $45 to $65. Information: 203-787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times