|Deborah Hearst '01, as Helen in Fat Pig, made her mark in the city that boasts more than 150 theatres.
She’s a pretty woman, with long, light-brown, wavy hair. She has an open face and a voice that, when she laughs, has a slightly husky texture. When you’re sharing a meal with her in a dark, sweeping Chicago restaurant you’re not thinking about how much physical space she takes up. Yet she’s become the toast of this theatre town, known for good reason as the Second City (second, as in second to New York, for the importance theatre plays here), for playing a sizable character.
As the female lead in Fat Pig, the biting, funny and painful play by Neil LaBute, Deborah Hearst ’01 has attracted rave reviews from critics and a best-actress nomination for a Jeff Award, the Chicago equivalent to the Tonys in New York. Her co-star, Darrell W. Cox, received the best-actor nomination, and another nomination went to Joe Jahraus, who directed the play, which debuted in September at the well-respected Profiles Theatre, an L stop north of Wrigley Field. It was to end Oct. 29 but was so popular the run was extended into early April.
In late March, Deborah stood onstage, reading and eating from a tray packed with pizza, pudding, salad and two full-octane Cokes, as the audience filed into the small theatre. Every seat on either side of the stage was taken. Many of those who laughed, cried and quietly raged through the two-hour play were young women.
A restaurant is where Hearst’s character Helen, a librarian, first encounters Tom (played by Cox), a slim, charming guy, who will become her boyfriend. Throughout the play, Tom is cruelly tormented by co-workers who question his attraction to a plus-sized woman. In this very direct commentary on weight discrimination it becomes clear that the Fat Pig of the title is not necessarily Helen.
“At first, the title bothered me,” says Hearst, “knowing that everybody was thinking that of me. I’ve always been self-conscious about my weight, and it was terrifying and relieving. The role gave me permission to be who I am. I was onstage in a bathing suit and my underwear. I did have to take a deep breath before going out on stage [when scantily clad],” she admits. “But if you’re not able to be vulnerable on stage, you’re not able to be vulnerable off stage.”
Playing Helen “improved my self-esteem,” Hearst continues. “You don’t let go of body issues overnight, but the size of my pants doesn’t really matter anymore.”
Like most Chicago actors, Hearst has a day job—currently with a travel agency that allows the flexibility to appear in five performances a week. She’s busily auditioning for her next role.
Though her weight was a prominent feature of her Fat Pig character, Hearst doesn’t feel it has typecast her for future roles. “People will or won’t hire me based on my body, whether or not I did this role. I have felt that there were parts I was not considered for in the past because of my weight. No one wants to see a fat Ophelia, but it’s OK for the gravedigger to be fat.
“I just want to keep finding work that challenges me and makes me grow as an actress and compels people to come to the theatre,” she adds.
Hearst came to Dickinson from West Virginia with a background in high-school forensics. Doing a dramatic interpretation of Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, about the 1991 Crown Heights riot, allowed her to marry her twin interests—social issues and art—for the first time. She carried this interest to her work with Dickinson’s Mermaid Players and Run With It improvisation group.
While she helped with every aspect of theatrical production—from lighting to makeup—Hearst also gained onstage experience. Before her role as Helen, her most challenging was at Dickinson as the title character in ’night, Mother.
“I was channeling the grief and desperation of the mother’s character, who was trying to hold onto her [suicidal] daughter. At the same time, I was trying to hold onto my father, who was dying of cancer.”
While her mother Nancy and sister Beth ’99 witnessed her Fat Pig triumph, Hearst missed the presence of her father. She imagines, were he alive, “He would have had every one of my reviews posted in his office for the world to see. He was very proud of everything I was.”
Also proud of her is her former Dickinson theatre professor, Bob Hupp ’81. Hupp, now producing artistic director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, notes that it is significant “to be as successful as she has been in a relatively short time in the Chicago market and to have such a high profile. It speaks to her tenacity and talent. Debbie is smart and determined—a wonderful combination to be successful as an actress. To be successful in the arts you need a well-rounded liberal-arts education. You can see the results through Debbie’s achievements.”
Weight discrimination is the latest social injustice to tackle for a profession that has sought to break down “barriers of color, age, disability and every other aspect of things perceived as barriers,” says Hupp. “Theatre has always been at the forefront of breaking down those barriers.”
To Hearst, playing in Fat Pig has allowed her to conquer personal barriers. “I learned a lot about myself and what I should be doing. I see this as my gateway to doing more shows that matter to me.”