The shiver that goes down your spine in “The Wholehearted” when a perpetrator of domestic abuse is set free by a judge with “time served” will be totally understandable hereabouts, given the Jared Remy story.
But the woman at the heart of the play at the Paramount Center (through Sunday) — in fact, the only woman in the play — is herself living a life of violence. She’s a female boxer who, at one point, was at the top of the game. She can strut with the most macho of men and does, particularly with her coach and husband, Charlie Flaxon. Until that night when he takes a knife to her and almost ends her life, all but ruining her career along the way.
When the play opens, however, she is narrating a video love letter to her prospective girlfriend, Carmen, as she relives Charlie’s promises to make her champ, her days at the top of the boxing world, their violent rift and her comeback.
It’s an excellent, all-round performance by Suli Holum, who gets so far into the character of Dee Crosby that you’d swear they were one and the same. Holum learned to box for the part, but that’s only a piece of the story. She’s alternatively sweet (with Carmen) and tough, seductive and off-putting, victim and co-conspirator in her violent world.
As co-director, Holum can also take part of the credit for the rich video design that captures close-up the joys and terrors of her enclosed life. The video seems to mirror the action until, at one point, Holum puts her head down and when she lifts it up, the image is bleeding from the nose.
The script by the other co-director, Deborah Stein, is not as good as Holum’s acting. Stein doesn’t sufficiently develop the relationship between the world of boxing and the issue of domestic violence. Is boxing a larger metaphor for the world outside the ring? A means to fight back? Too much of the story seems specific to Dee, and really not that well-developed outside of Holum’s performance.
But kudos to ArtsEmerson not only for bringing it in, but also helping to develop it in a residency last year. It’s a strong piece of theater. The performance doesn’t need any more punch, just the script.