by Neil LaBute
Directed by Greg Leaming
Banyan Theater Company
Cook Theatre/FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarastota, 941-552-1032
August 6 to August 30, 2009

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Huge white, often moved vertical panels mark off restaurants, an office, a bedroom, a beach dune that isolate those within the "walls" from those outside each place. Designer Kirk V. Hughes encases all in black velvet and supplies only necessary, bland but sleek furnishings to create close to abstract settings at a time that seems almost in suspension. Only in the restaurants does activity take place that is defined and appropriate. Never indicated, for example, is what kind of work is done in the important office, although why the beach spot isn't near the water becomes pitifully clear. So clever to shift physical boundaries as viewpoints, emotions, and relationships change within them!     

Intriguing, the title yet misleads. Though it describes Helen (appealing Margot Moreland, vivaciously attuned to her character's authenticity), in classic dramatic terms she incites the conflict. That belongs to protagonist Tom (Sam Osheroff, attractive, congenial) as he pursues an unlikely romance with Helen. It sparks antagonism---based on the familiar appearance vs. reality dramatic theme---from Tom's work buddy Carter and recent office romance Jeannie. A near psychotic preoccupation with women's bodies and others' opinions of them, from his childhood with an obese mother to detailed observation even of Jeannie, shows Dane Dandridge Clark's Carter to be consistently vacuous. Professing friendly interest, he can't leave Tom alone, either in what seems to be an office better than Carter's (is he jealous?) or during Tom's after-work life.  Aggressive Jeannie (Bethany Weise, ultimate beauty-and-the-bitch) hates Tom for breaking up with her and then stringing her along seemingly to no purpose. How could Tom possibly prefer the company of "fat pig" Helen to them?  Why isn't his opinion of her the same as theirs and, based on her weight, of most others? Can Tom be brought into line?

It's not as if Helen, who's given to defensive stereotypical remarks about herself before others can make them, hasn't warned Tom from the start of how cruel people can be toward the obese.  Not that she's totally invulnerable. But, as she tells him, she's okay with herself. And so is he; in fact, he thinks he loves her. They share interests (like war films, eating out, conversation). They're sexually compatible. She makes him happy. Will Tom crack as Carter and Jeannie try ridicule, badgering, violence? Is Carter right about Tom sacrificing his image and prospects at a time when they are at their height? Will Helen be an added chapter in Tom's history of breakups? Or is she right to believe either or both capable of change that will make a fundamental difference in their appearances, in reality as perceived outside of them?  Is ripeness all?

Greg Leaming has wisely directed the actors in realistic style but required abstract production elements appropriate to a modern morality play.  Jaye Annette Sheldon's tailored era-neutral charcoal and black business outfits, broken by white or colored blouses and shirts, contrast well with Helen's more vibrant clothing. Nothing illustrates the appearance-reality motif better than the two women's beach apparel-Helen's one-piece dark suit with scarf cover-up and Jeannie's skimpiest of flowery bikinis. Michael Pasquini's bright lighting proves essential. Steve Lemke designed the appropriate sound.  

Jon Merlyn is Production Stage Manager for the production of 2 hours, including a 15 minute intermission.  Banyan Theater Company's last production of the year as usual leaves one wishing for more.

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