From “Requiem for a Heavyweight’’ to “Rocky’’ to “Raging Bull,’’ from Clifford Odets’s “Golden Boy’’ to Paul Simon’s “The Boxer’’ to Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,’’ there’s something about prizefighters that draws artists time and again.
Perhaps it’s the stark clarity enforced by their livelihood and their workplace, the boxing ring, which serves so neatly as proving ground, as moral battleground, as crucible of character.
The latest dramatists to be drawn to the squared circle in search of a confrontation with core human truths are Deborah Stein and Suli Holum, collaborators on “The Wholehearted,’’ an intriguing new solo show now receiving its world premiere at ArtsEmerson.
Written by Stein, starring Holum (who plays multiple characters), and directed by both of them, “The Wholehearted’’ explores the turbulent life of fictional boxer Dee Crosby.
After once reigning supreme in the world of female prizefighters — winner of 49 bouts, 31 of them by knockout — Dee now has to stitch her sense of self back together after her husband and trainer, Charlie Flaxon, shot and stabbed her.
Notwithstanding a few twists, the freshness of “The Wholehearted’’ does not lie in its story, nor in its dialogue, which too often veers into tough-gal cliché as it attempts to evoke the gritty world of prizefighting. Charlie’s cartoon villainy tends to undercut the tension; he’s too stereotypically the evil redneck, his menace of the leering, lip-smacking kind, complete with drawled, exaggeratedly obvious threats.
In terms of overall presentation and performance, however, “The Wholehearted’’ is a boldly arresting work, elevated by its pervasive and skillful use of video and by Holum’s alternately brooding and explosive portrayal of Dee.
Her ambition and marriage to Charlie ruptured Dee’s romantic relationship with a young woman named Carmen, and it is Carmen whom Dee addresses as she begins to tell her story, which will include occasional flashbacks to their romance over the 60 minutes or so it takes “The Wholehearted’’ to unfold. The audience in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Emerson/Paramount Center is grouped on four sides of Amy Rubin’s set, a boxing ring that has become Dee’s temporary home. A black punching bag hangs from a chain, gray tape wrapped around its middle. A pink boxing robe is draped over a chair. A few coffee cups are strewn about the stage, along with an open suitcase.
Above the stage are Jumbotron-style screens on which the action is projected live from video cameras that are operated either by Holum or by a silent cameraman (Stevo Arnoczy) working just offstage. Periodically we see snippets of a taped interview of Dee on ESPN (the interviewer is played by Maren Bush). “The Wholehearted’ also spoofs inane “Entertainment Tonight’’-style celebrity TV shows; one segment breathlessly introduces Dee as “the sexy siren of the sweet science.’’
Holum is quite effective in a late scene where Dee transforms into Charlie, complete with cowboy boots, a black flowered shirt, sunglasses, and slicked-back Elvis hair, as he sings a creepy love song. But, crucially, Holum is entirely plausible as a boxer, whether she is delivering a whirlwind of jabs and uppercuts as the actress reconstructs one of Dee’s victories; strutting around the ring with a cocky grin, gloves raised high; or snapping her head back violently in a fight where Dee was on the receiving end of most of the punishment.
Her most punishing encounters, though, are on the homefront. Though Charlie was convicted of the attack on her, the judge sentenced him to time served, with no additional jail time, and now he is living at the lavish Florida home Dee’s winnings paid for, while we wonder what the seething boxer’s next move will be. Charlie was 43 and she was 17 when they met; he was the guy who propelled Dee to the big time, seducing her with a classic bright lights-big money siren song consisting of these words: “Girl, you’re gonna be someone.’’
She did become someone, but it’s suggested in “The Wholehearted’’ that Dee is not happy with that someone, that she lost a chunk of her soul on the road to fame and riches. She seems to be trying to get it back. Amid the brutal world she inhabits, one scene, involving a red silk nightgown that she had bought for Carmen, stands out for its tenderness. From the look on Dee’s face as she puts on the nightgown, which now represents the time the two of them have lost, it’s clear she’s absorbing a tougher truth than any she ever encountered in the ring.