First loves are often the subject of works of drama, but the first loves reminisced about in Stuffed differ greatly from those of a Shakespearean tragedy. Instead of a next-door neighbor or a classmate in school, these loves are food. Sugary, fatty, deep-fried and almost always forbidden.
These loves are discussed rapturously by four women who have gathered to talk a lot and eat a little. Differentiated by their various sizes and dysfunctions, they are played by Lisa Lampanelli, Ann Harada, Zainab Jah and Jessica Luck. They share an easy camaraderie onstage as they dish (pun intended) on their histories with food, which inevitably are a part of their histories with their families, their lovers and, of course, their own self-esteem or lack thereof.
Lampanelli plays a stand-up comedian who lost weight through gastric sleeve surgery. Known for her biting tongue and unapologetically raunchy humor, her performance alternates between acerbic self-defense and touching vulnerability, especially when discussing her obese ex-boyfriend, Frank, who died from diabetes. Luck’s character is anorexic and will do anything to remain thin, including laxatives and purging. Hidden behind a loose blouse and an enormous cardigan sweater she frequently wraps around herself, her soft-spoken Southern accent details her history with an abusive boyfriend and her terror of ever being called “fat”. One especially poignant moment took place when she said of shopping for jeans, “I can’t just go up a size because, what if I never stop going up a size?”
Jah has the opposite problem: she cannot gain weight no matter what she does, and she informs her friends that this, too, is a problem. Harada’s character is the exception to the group in that she is happy with her body – a seemingly incomprehensible idea to many, who, she says, would rather know that she had suffered a terrible experience than for her to be happy with how she looks. And, she tells her friends, she had to go through a lot of work to get to where she was. (It is worth noting that Harada, a successful actress, is hardly fat.)
There is little dramatic structure to Stuffed, which is Lampanelli’s first play and is directed by Jackson Gay. No one conflict drives the evening, which runs for 80 minutes, as the four women each discuss their histories and their hopes. (One particularly funny and poignant moment features them strolling out of the refrigerator that looms in the background of the set, brightly describing what they will do and be if they ever reach their “perfect” weight.) The subject of the play is endlessly relatable, as the women bond over their struggles. Black stretch pants are the favorite outfit for the “fat girl,” as are “body-elongating” pendants. The free bread basket at a restaurant is their most-loved and most-hated thing. And don’t get them started on the annoyance of a friend who wants to share a dessert.
While the words “male gaze” are never uttered onstage, the idea is omnipresent, as are the beauty standards for women, which everyone knows are unattainable but everyone also knows are not changing. But the subject is a welcome one to be explored in a play, especially in an industry as male-driven as the theater. And while the audience at the performance I attended was filled with women laughing in sympathy and understanding with the actors onstage, I wished the seats could also be filled with men who were learning a thing or two.