Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play
Co-director Suli Holum stars as a strong and beloved boxer named Dee Crosby. She tries to come to terms with her infatuation for an ex-lover, Carmen. Crosby often creates filmed videos geared towards her crush. A very disturbing aspect is the fighter's marriage to her trainer, Charlie. After he brutally beats Crosby, the sports figure questions what she can do in order to live a brighter future.
Amy Rubin's stadium-themed set allows audiences to be close to the action. Viewers sit on all sides of the tiny stage, which lets them feel more connected to the protagonist. Even if the evening were held in a large theatrical space, Holum would still make an impact. Often wearing boxing attire from Angela Harner, the star displays a lot of different sides of Crosby, from a hopeless romantic to a tough-as-nails warrior.
Jumbotrons project both pre-recorded and live footage designed by Katherine Freer and engineered by Stivo Arnoczy (who films Holum in person from time to time). For the majority of the theatrical piece, the imagery enhances different moments, such as Crosby's opening fight. Occasionally, the use of video is excessive, especially when Crosby records herself on a hand-held camcorder for Carmen's benefit. Holum is so compelling to watch that her amorous speeches don't need the extra visuals.
While not a musical, Holum sings several original songs composed by Heather Christian and co-sound designer James Sugg. Holum sings in a powerfully raw style and Stephen Arnold's lighting contributes to a karaoke-like atmosphere. Most of the tunes add an increased insight into Crosby's life, but Charlie's solo comes across as somewhat forced.
After a sequence, when physical violence is implied, Holum, as the pugilist's spouse, croons a blackly comical love song. The big number might be more effective if used earlier in the tale, as opposed to immediately following such a bleak scene. That's a minor issue in what is a challenging and engrossing production.
Stein and Holum present the narrative as a mystery of sorts. Stein's plot goes back and forth in time to reveal what led to Charlie's unforgivable behavior. This subject is never depicted in a gratuitous or exploitative way. Violence does play a big part in the drama, even though there barely is any brutality onstage.
The Wholehearted deals with existential topics that force San Diegans to reflect on an important chapter in Crosby's life. She might have lived through a personal horror, but her hopes and dreams following the attack are delusional and unrealistic. Neither Stein nor Holum judge whether Crosby's plans, following the heinous act, are noble or insane.
Far from the kind of entertainment associated with this time of the year, The Wholehearted succeeds as a well-crafted and cerebral story. Be prepared for a complicatedly dark character study.
La Jolla Playhouse presents The Wholehearted through December 18, 2016, at 2910 La Jolla Village Dr, La Jolla. Tickets start at $10.00 and be purchased online at www.lajollaplayhouse.org or by phone at 1-858-550-1010.