The Wholehearted, at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Wholehearted, at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater

Suli Holum's singlehanded re-enactment of a match is worth the price of admission

Woman Overcomes Domestic Abuse is a premise as storied and respectable as any of Hitchcock's favorites, like Man Wrongfully Accused, or Spielberg's Man Has Father. Woman Overcomes Domestic Abuse runs back to folk tales like "Cinderella." In the modern day, Woman Overcomes Domestic Abuse has famously been championed by the Lifetime network, of whose films I am a casual scholar.

There are valid objections to this genre, particularly in folk tales and Lifetime movies, mainly that they often portray abuse in a condescending fashion. Sometimes it feels as though the heroine's trauma was cynically added in to make the show "pop" emotionally, like a burst of red in a landscape. The main cliché is the scene where the heroine screams and recoils in terror from something harmless, as if 100 playwrights had skimmed the Wikipedia page on PTSD, then called it a night.

click to enlarge Suli Holum in The Wholehearted
Suli Holum in The Wholehearted

The Wholehearted opens with Suli Holum doing exactly this, so we started off on the wrong foot. This is not Holum's fault. Her turn as Dee Crosby, champion flyweight boxer, carries 90 percent of this touring show, and her singlehanded re-enactment of a match — half punch-drunk boxer, half douchebag color commentator — is worth the price of admission. The Wholehearted is a superlative example of its genre mainly for Holum's performance and the production design, both of which elevate the book, by Deborah Stein (who co-directed with Holum for Brooklyn-based Stein/Holum Projects).

The design is the main draw. This is the one show in a hundred that uses A/V elements to actually enhance performances rather than bulldozing them. The audience is on three sides of the performer, but the Jumbotron hovering over the boxing ring-esque stage gives everyone closeups. The show even breaks for Holum to perform live songs, which she did tremendously.

I was still left cold by a few elements. I couldn't hear the lyrics of the final song over the loud accompaniment. Worse is the scripted use of mic feedback to indicate that something is not right, a lazy technique I'd hoped was limited to film. That's why I hate A/V misuse: It disrespects Holum's ability to personally impart tension, which is the reason to go in the first place.

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