Paragon's W(hole) is more than just a sum of its parts

In Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan tends to steal God's thunder; as depicted, he's much more interesting than the Creator. The same is true of the wickeder of the two main characters in local playwright Tracy Shaffer's W(hole). The play, receiving its world premier at Paragon, concerns the twisted, symbiotic relationship between two women: Ames, a painter, who enjoys a stable marriage and a burgeoning career, and her model, Carla. Vivid, seductive and needy, Carla is a terrific creation. We know this woman — I've encountered her before, and I've always suspected that fragile little Princess Diana, the supposedly altruistic, vulnerable, publicity-seeking and highly disturbed soul who almost brought down the English monarchy was of this sorority. These people are psychological black holes: They're intensely self-destructive, and part of the process involves destroying others drawn into their orbit. But borderline personalities can have astonishing charm, and they often entrap a victim by indicating that he or she is the only source of love and support in the universe, the one person who can save them from annihilation. Margaret Atwood created one of the finest examples of the type in The Robber Bride. Her Zenia wasn't overtly needy like Princess Di, but a power to be reckoned with, a toxic beauty, liar and shape-shifter who stole her friends' lovers by insinuating herself into their lives, each time with a story that meshed perfectly with their ideals and predilections.

Carla isn't in charge of her own story, as Zenia was. She's a mess. A coke addict and the mother of a six-year-old girl, she gets what she wants through seduction — male, female, it's all the same to her — and what she wants is to be Ames. By turns cocky or compliant, bragging or whimpering, constantly bargaining, she'll do whatever it takes. Heaven help the painter once this desperate, suffering vampire has entered her life, taken off her clothes and settled down to be sketched. There is a catch, though: Part of Ames, the seeking, unsatisfied artist part, really wants to be Carla.

Unfortunately, Ames isn't as interesting or well-developed as Carla. We know she has strong feelings about her work, and many of her comments on art and art-making are insightful and beautiful (some of the dialogue feels forced or too poetic, however, as when the sole male character tosses an apple into the air, catches it and remarks that possibility resides in "that moment right there, between the rise and the fall."). Next to vivid Carla, Ames feels a little beige. The action, too, has a static quality, with metaphor and symbolism often taking the place of action. There's a lot of weight placed on a bowl of green apples, Carla's bright-red Jimmy Choos, the equally red cord with which Ames binds Carla's hands when she poses. Sometimes it works. The apple tosser is the estranged father of Carla's child, Hart, who visits Ames and falls for her. He's a pleasant, smart, thoughtful man, a meteorologist, but not clearly delineated as a character, a neutral canvas with no apparent foibles of his own. His profession does provide a rich lode of metaphor, though: uncertain weather, stars, storm systems, black holes. When Ames is finally able to reassert herself and recapture her own soul, she does it through a symbolic act, but nothing about this act is as convincing as Carla's dangerous vitality.

This is nonetheless a beautifully written, courageous script, a clear-eyed exploration of issues of art, identity and sexuality. Under the direction of Michael Stricker, Paragon has given it a strong production (with one glaring exception — please get a more artful frog painting, guys!). John Hoff is a pleasant Hart and Carolyn Valentine a suitably buttoned-up Ames. Borderline personalities are all around us, but Carla is a highly original member of the tribe. She's brought to corruscating life by Lucianne Lajoie, and she's well worth encountering.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman