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Suli Holum in The Wholehearted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Suli Holum in The Wholehearted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

The Wholehearted

Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
The Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through December 11

The Wholehearted is an intense, ambitious work in need of finessing.

Performed by Suli Holum, it’s inspired by the real life account of world champion female boxer Christy Martin, an abused spouse who survived a murder attempt by her husband but never made a comeback after he shot and stabbed her and left her for dead.

Holum depicts fictional boxer Dee Crosby, a young gal from Bakersfield who’s fighting in local matches when she’s spotted by a trainer, Charlie Flaxon. A man in his 40s, Flaxon promises Crosby the world if she’ll come away with him and be his protégé. That means leaving behind the love of Dee’s youth, a lovely long-haired girl named Carmen — and lured by promises of fame and fortune, Dee does just that.

For a while the young boxer is able to relish everything she’s been promised: championship in the ring, her photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a beautiful home with a pool, a Camaro and fawning friends. But trouble breaks out when Charlie begins to suspect he’s being betrayed, and the situation down spirals to a tragic end.

As the feisty Dee, working out in the gym or taking a punch in the ring, Holum has power and presence to spare. The problem comes when she’s depicting the other characters, Carmen and Charlie —her transitions are not crystal clear, and the narrative suffers. Also, the play, written by Deborah Stein and co-directed by Stein and Holum, is punctuated with a number of country-and-western style love songs, which Holum sings, at intervals, as Dee, Carmen or Charlie, depending on where we are in the story. The juxtaposing of Dee’s gritty experience as a boxer with these vocal performances, fine in themselves, never quite seems to jibe.

The collaborators also have done some interesting things with their staging, which is in the round: A camera person (Stivo Arnoczy) records portions of the performance which are then displayed on monitors suspended above the proscenium. Dee, who is making a tape to send to Carmen, also speaks into a camera, and these images sometimes appear as well. And there are pre-recorded fight scenes, with announcers calling the fight, and at other times a simulated exchange between Dee and an interviewer probing into her past. (Before reading the press notes, I was convinced Dee was a real person.) It’s a very busy production — effective in depicting the forces arrayed against its tough yet vulnerable central character, but requiring some tidying up in its moment-to-moment staging.

Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m., Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m.; through December 11. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 65 minutes.