The temptations of apple crisp and chocolate cake do figure heavily in Bess Welden’s 75-minute one-woman show “Big Mouth Thunder Thighs,” playing now at the Mad Horse Theater in South Portland. One of them even appears on stage, in triple-layer, butter-cream-frosted glory.

But the moving, funny play isn’t entirely about her relationship with food; it’s about her fight to make peace with herself, with that inner critic we’re all familiar with, that voice that taunts us from within about all our failings.

We sat down with the 44-year-old actress and writer, who moved to Portland from New York 12 years ago with her husband and two children, to talk about eating, dieting and what it feels like to bare your soul and your midriff in front of audiences.

Q: What is your dieting history?

 

A: In my teens and 20s, dieting was like a thing you had to do. It was normal. The better dieter you were the better person you were. I did grapefruit only and Grapenuts only and Slimfast and then for a while I did something called Fit for Life. I knew that diets didn’t really work. I did all kinds of cleansing things. And then I started to restrict food for quote-unquote health reasons. I became a vegetarian and then a vegan. I did high fat and then low fat. I did three years of no sugar. I did low carb and said it wasn’t a diet, but a way to reduce pain and inflammation in my body. And then I had a moment of realizing, you are totally lying to yourself. You are calling it something else, but you are still dieting and the mind part of it was not in a healthy place.

 

Q: Was that the genesis of “Big Mouth, Thunder Thighs?” You started writing it a few years ago, right?

A: I realized I was 40 and still really entrenched in all of this. I realized that I was really ashamed to talk to people about it. And I thought, how can someone who is really smart and a feminist be this way? I was embarrassed. I got hugely depressed, being in this obsessive, cycling place. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to go on this way for the rest of my life. So I made the decision to completely throw that away and see if I could live without rules about food … As part of that whole process, I adopted a writing practice. And as I was on this quest to unravel what was beneath all these issues for me about my body and food, and what my life was going to be like now, a lot of this material came up.

 

Q: How has the show evolved since you premiered it in 2013 at Portland Stage?

A: I wanted to take the play to as universal a place as possible. Yes, it is about my own personal struggle with food and body images, but I wanted it to look at how do we as human beings deal with our inner critics. I really wanted to drive home this core idea that we are all walking around with this burden of self-criticism. Even for people who don’t have charged issues with their body, they do have issues with their inner critic.

 

Q: You end each show by inviting the audience to share their stories with you, and then to share a triple-chocolate layer cake – cooked by Linda Brann of Linda Cakes in Gorham – which plays a crucial role in the story’s climax. How did that come about?

A: That started with me asking audience members for artistic feedback. There were inevitably a number of people who would start sharing their experiences spontaneously. They’d say things like, ‘You know that idea you had about wanting to cut off the fleshy parts of your body? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that urge.’ That was fascinating and exciting and made me feel like I could or should keep going with the show … Pretty much every woman I know has dealt with this and there are plenty of men who are dealing with it too, even if the flavor of it might be different. We all have issues with food. Not to get too New Age-y about it, but food is so primal and basic.

 

Q: Do you feel like your own journey to self-acceptance is complete?

A: The struggle now is to be able to look at myself in a mirror or a photograph or in a dressing room trying on clothes and say, ‘This is it. This is what my body looks like when I am living a really grounded, fulfilling family life, when I have a creative life and career that is exciting and going well, when I eat pretty well and exercise regularly.’ But the old ideas of what I am supposed to look like are so hard to give up, and everything in the media tells me what I am supposed to look like. It is almost like a revolutionary act to accept that this is who I am.

 

Q: That makes me think of Lena Dunham, whose HBO show “Girls” and movie “Tiny Furniture” have been so revolutionary. She’s outside what the industrial beauty complex tells us is supposed to be sexy, but she bares her body on “Girls” as if it is the most normal thing in the world for a heavier woman to be naked on screen. Has Dunham been an influence on you?

A: I have seen “Tiny Furniture,” and I liked it, but I don’t have cable television so I haven’t seen “Girls.” I wish I could say that I was at a place where I felt 100 percent the same way, but I don’t think it would be honest to say that I am quite that fierce in my self-acceptance. But what I do relate to very much with Lena Dunham is that she doesn’t try to make herself fit into some sort of Hollywood standard. She tells a story and she isn’t trying to clean it up so that we can all feel good about it. I would like to think that in some small way in “Big Mouth, Thunder Thighs” I am doing the same thing.

 

Q: Is that part of what you’re exploring with your wardrobe? For much of the show you are wearing a red satin costume that’s pretty much a bikini top and hot pants.

A: I call that my Vaudeville Show Girl outfit. It’s like a 1930s swim suit. I am out there in that outfit and that alone is like a huge leap. The costume designer said, ‘Are you sure you’re going to feel comfortable in that?’ The whole idea is that I am not going to be comfortable.

 

Q: What is it like for you now to go out to eat?

A: The biggest thing that has changed for me is when I go out to a restaurant I am excited about it. I have learned to slow down enough that more often than not, I can keep from overeating. And I don’t choose based on ‘oh, what is going to have too much fat or calories or be best for me?’ That isn’t even part of my vocabulary anymore.

 

Q: Your daughter is 13, that critical age where body issues can kick in. You said middle school is when you started developing issues around food and body image. How did she respond to the show?

A: She was surprised to hear that this was my story and that it was something that I had essentially been struggling with my whole life. And that it was not just a little problem but a huge problem. She has seen old photographs of me and videotapes and it didn’t quite compute for her. She says, ‘I didn’t understand why you thought you were fat.’

 

Q: And how about your husband?

A: He was much more tuned into this being an issue for me because we have been together for 19 years. He was certainly witness to any number of the non-diet diets I was on. He is one of my biggest champions; he doesn’t care what I look like, he loves me. If only I had had the wherewithal to just listen to my husband when he said ‘You are just fine the way you are,’ I could have saved myself years of agony. But that is one of the hardest things to believe, that from the outside, people are not judging you the way you are judging yourself from the inside.

 

Q: What do you want audiences to know about “Big Mouth, Thunder Thighs?”

A: That the play is funny. It sounds like such a difficult subject. When I first read the play to my playwrights group, there was a person there who said, ‘This is kind of like a story that we have heard a million times.’ And I got really mad. People think they know the story of this story. They think they know what it is to have body image issues or eating disorders. But what about the people who spend their entire lives in this fraught relationship with food? What about those of us who don’t have a diagnosis but live in this destructive, day-to-day kind of place with food?

 

Staff Writer Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at [email protected]