Born Fat : When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

April Woodall, star of "Born Fat."

April Woodall, star of “Born Fat.”

There are some people that are so absurdly complex, so full of drama (of the literal kind), that you could easily see their lives as a stage play with a built-in human tragedy that Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill would have died to have created.

That’s the case with one Ms. Elizabeth Petruccione. Chances are, the common person doesn’t know Ms. Petruccione, who, at the age of 62, launched her own rather zany health venture, “Losing Weight With Elizabeth.” Yes, there’s even a YouTube channel where you can watch Ms. Petruccione talk about food and dieting:

But underneath all of that life and zeal is a story about loss, and not just of physical weight: A series of awful marriages, a terrible and abusive childhood, and, perhaps most tragic, the death of a 20-year-old son who was killed when he was struck by lighting while riding a motorcycle (he survived a near fatal car accident when he was 16). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Ms. Petruccione’s struggles and ultimate victories are documented in the FringArts Festival production of Born Fat, a one-woman show which plays the intimate Biello Martin Studio in Old City and stars the fabulous April Woodall as the weight-loss guru. Written by Jacques LaMarre, the play explores Elizabeth’s compulsive eating habits as a child (“I used to hide food like it was Anne Frank and her family,” she says at one point), her emotionally and physically unavailable mother who put her on a variety of diets as a young girl, and her series of marriages and relationships with men who were all, in way or another, perpetuating Elizabeth’s own mental anguish.

April Woodall and Elizabeth Petruccione.

April Woodall and Elizabeth Petruccione.

And then, of course, there’s the weight: 93 pounds that Elizabeth gained and loss more times than the audience can keep count. The show is about weight loss, yes, and is designed to make one feel like they are an audience member in one of Ms. Petruccione’s seminars, filled with health tidbits (like the 2,000 calories in an Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion or the estimated 40,000 legal weight-loss pills Elizabeth consumed in her life) and juicy insider dirt on the cult-like organization Weight Watchers, very thinly disguised as another fake weight-loss corporation in the play. However, the parts of the script that soar, and feel most authentic, are when we get to see the raw vulnerability of an everyday woman with extraordinary tragedies that reminds us that we all bring our own emotional weight to the table.

Ms. Woodall’s Elizabeth is superb, and you can’t help but root for the unlikely underdog of a woman who is irresistibly likable. Gina Giusto’s direction is simple and quite appropriate for the intimate gallery space, which only seats several dozen theater goers.

On Saturday evening’s performance, Ms. Petruccione was in the house, and before Ms. Woodall took a bow, she brought the real-life Elizabeth on the stage. It was a truly unique moment that encapsulated why theater is so powerful: It’s not larger than life, but life itself, and in the case of Born Fat, there is plenty of it to go around.