Weight Watchers, Watch Out

It’s a new year and traditionally the time of resolutions as people make plans to improve their lives.  One staple of the New Year’s Resolution list is the vow to lose weight, and one of the givens of that vow is that it will be accompanied with a lot of drama.  What should be a simple, private decision to alter one’s diet or undertake an exercise regimen becomes fraught with the dynamics of the game show—can she/he do it?—together with the psychic costs of failing—if not, what’s “wrong” with her/him?  We even have TV shows like The Biggest Loser dedicated to the weight-loss ordeal. January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy, the new play by Laura Jacqmin  debuting this week at the Long Wharf Theatre, takes on the high anxiety of self-improvement with comedy, horror elements, and a knowing sense of the absurd.  Set in a “weight-loss boot camp” in Florida, it follows the travails of two sisters, Myrtle (Meredith Holzman) and Terry (Ashlie Atkinson).  Terry, the elder, experienced a recent cardiac incident that has sent her scurrying to Total Xtreme, run by Brian (Anthony Bowden) and April (Tonya Glanz).  Myrtle is along to offer moral support, which means that she is both with the program and looking a little askance at it.  And dedication is clearly an issue since a “January Joiner” is the term for the memberships at health spas that begin with New Year’s resolutions and fade by spring.

According to the script, Myrtle and Terry are overweight young women—5'5" and well over 200 lbs. They are joined by Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a happy-go-lucky heavy person who tips the scale at over 300 lbs. and keeps coming back to make what little adjustments he can.  Thus, among the three dieters we have desperation—Terry claims she will lose 50 lbs. during her stay—acceptance, and indifference.  Then there are creepier elements—such as Not-Terry and Holy Shit Ghost, both played by Maria-Christina Oliveras—that add a touch of the uncanny to the proceedings.

An undercurrent of the play is certainly the question: why is weight an issue, and what’s the solution?  The question of one’s appearance, in our image-conscious world, is not simply physical.  It comes loaded with moral, personal, psychological, and social implications—the kinds of things that plays thrive on.

But the play, in the view of its director, Eric Ting, is more than just a satire on the effect of social injunctions to be thinner, better-looking, or to have such goals. It’s a play about change. “At its heart it is a play about two sisters growing apart, about becoming so different that they don’t recognize each other,” Ting said.

To change one’s appearance—all the ads say—is to change one’s life.  A “new you.”  But what gets shed and lost with the “old you”?  For Laura Jacqmin, its author, the play asks: “What happens to us when the people who are closest to us change?”  What is the effect on our relationships when we take on roles, tasks or goals that change our relations to others already in our lives?

January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy runs from from January 9 through February 10, 2013 on Stage II.  Opening night is Wednesday, January 16, at 7:30 p.m.