Playwright Neil LaBute is noted for making audiences feel uncomfortable. He likes to put characters in situations that are difficult to watch. But with the thought-provoking "Fat Pig," now being presented by Ghostlight Theatre Club, under Emily Etherton's direction, LaBute makes us squirm by holding up a mirror to the audience and posing the question, "What would you do?"
Tom (Jeff Burleson), a yuppie who is ranked enough in his unspecified, generic company to rate a private office, meets Helen (the wonderful Cristela Carrizales), a heavyset librarian, in "? where else? "? a cafeteria. They hit it off. Helen is sharp and adventurous, has a sense of humor and likes war movies.
Svelte she is not. Far from it, but she's the first one to tell the fat jokes, which makes Tom a tad uneasy. Well, self-deprecating humor usually works, but one wonders if Helen's outward confidence masks inward doubt.
They begin dating, but she notices that Tom never introduces her to his friends and avoids being seen with her in public. That's because Tom is an all-American wuss masquerading as a super-nice guy.
And what friends! Jeannie (Bonnie Montgomery), Tom's co-worker and former girlfriend, is whiny, neurotic, meddlesome and supermodel-thin. If that's not bad enough, she also works in accounting. Carter (Patton Graves) is a jerk masquerading as, well, nothing; he's just a jerk, although Jeannie's anatomical description of him is more accurate and definitely more colorful.
In Jeannie and Carter, LaBute lays it on a little thick. They have no redeeming values. Carter's seeming honesty when he earnestly advises Tom about Helen is just barely disguised bigotry. One would like to see more subtlety in these characters.
Without Carrizales' outstanding performance, this production of "Fat Pig" would just be a discomforting case for the Golden Rule. Carrizales, one of the city's finest actors, gives a daring, heartfelt performance that is marked by understanding and nuance. It is one of the best of the year.
Standing ovations don't mean anything anymore. When was the last time you saw one of those mediocrities that pass for touring musicals not get a standing ovation? But when the opening-night audience rose for Carrizales' curtain call, it did not feel perfunctory. The audience seemed to stand out of deep respect for a truly outstanding performance. This was a richly deserved standing ovation.
At one point, Carter tells Tom that people are not comfortable with difference. Because of her weight, Helen does not fit in with Tom's crowd, but she is intelligent, sweet and makes Tom happy. Furthermore, she offers literally to change herself for him, so he must make a decision. What do you think he does?
It is interesting to speculate about what happens to the characters after the play ends. LaBute gives me the feeling that these characters have been in this situation before and will be in it again. The question is, then, does the play change us?
Fat Pig stages at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Oct. 17; Thursday, Oct. 15 at Ghostlight Theatre Club, 3110 N. Walker.