Review: ‘The Wholehearted’ at Z Space (****1/2)

by Christine Okon

wholehearted

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Why does anyone fight? To protect themselves, to hurt others, to win, to survive? The answers are not simple.

“The Wholehearted,” at Z Space until September 10, reveals this complexity in a gut wrenching and intense hour of one woman’s journey to reintegrate the pieces of a self shattered by the betrayal of an abusive husband, and life in general.  The woman is no typical woman, but world champion boxer Dee Crosby, played by the remarkable Suli Holum who also co-created the show with Deborah Stein. Holum trained for four years as a boxer, and it shows. She becomes every character in Dee’s life: Charlie, the rough trainer she eventually married; Carmen, a woman lover; and especially Dee’s former victorious self on a video that is played and replayed.

We sit ringside around an elevated platform, and the excitement begins as Dee Crosby punches and jabs in sync with the opponent displayed on overhead monitors. With expert sound and visual design (Matt Hubbs, James Sugg, Katherine Freer, Dave Tennent and Stephen Arnold) we feel each punch in the gut and every cross to the jaw, although there is no actual fighting on stage. We watch a montage that reveals Crosby’s rise to boxing greatness, complete with a pose with Don King and a Sports Illustrated cover.

We then see Dee sometime in the future as she watches her old self on a tiny TV. She is traveling up and down the continuum of time, memory, emotion, suffering and love. Along the way we learn how she met the trainer she trusted and later married, only to find that her sense of self would slowly dissolve as the relationship turned violent. She is hurt physically, psychically, emotionally yet still struggles to survive.

The way Holum “becomes” the abusive Charlie before our eyes is masterful, intensifying the painful domestic conflict. When Charlie sings original C&W songs (James Sugg and Heather Christian) like “Pretty Girl,” we get an idea of how a sweet talking man could be a controlling monster.  (Holum revealed after the show that she challenged herself to learn to sing, and she was wonderful.)

“The Wholehearted” is a powerful story about healing, recovery and recreation. The after-show talkback session Thursday night featured three psychologists who work with those who’ve experienced trauma and domestic abuse. Very often, victims are asked “why don’t you just leave” or “why didn’t you fight back?” In a world that wants to tear you apart, even a trained boxer can be taken down by surprise.

If you’re lucky, you can catch “The Wholehearted” before it proceeds on a national tour.

“The Wholehearted” continues at Z Space through September 10. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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“The Wholehearted” written by Deborah Stein. Directors: Deborah Stein and Suli Holum. Onstage Camera and Video Engineer: Stivo Anroczy. Sound Design: Matt Hubbs and James Sugg. Video Design: Katherine Freer and Dave Tennent. Lighting Design: Stephen Arnold. Costume Design: Angela Herner. Original Music: James Sugg and Heather Christian.

Cast:

Suli Holum: Dee Crosby, Charlie, and all onstage characters. Stivo Arnoczy: Onstage cameraman

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