note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Until you walk in his shoes, you can’t realize the depth of morbidly obese Charlie’s pain. Far underneath his several layers of 600+ pound girth is a man struggling to make things right before his imminent death, in Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning, two-act drama, “The Whale”. Masterfully directed by David R. Gammons, actor-playwright John Kuntz as fortysomething-year-old Charlie makes damn sure you feel every sting, every barb, every pain, with Charlie’s every breath, wheeze, and labored movement.
“The Whale” isn’t a barrel of laughs, a romantic interlude, or emotional ride with a happy ending. It’s an in-your-face poke at reality, the story of a formerly married man who left his wife and 2-year-old daughter for his gay lover, and lost contact with the child and his embittered spouse. His unseen lover, former student Alan, also underwent trauma when he attended a service at the Mormon church in Northern Idaho,where Alan’s father was the minister. Alan returned from there, crushed.
Charlie doesn’t know what happened, because Alan would never talk about it, but Alan stopped eating, and living. From grief and frustration, Charlie started eating uncontrollably, to the point of teaching online classes in expository writing, revealing only his voice and emails to his students. He became reclusive, ashamed to be seen.
When an awkward, lanky, self-conscious 19-year-old missionary named Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor) comes to Charlie’s door to teach him the word of the Church, Charlie welcomes him, hoping to find out what destroyed Alan that fateful day in church.
The revelation is disappointing to theatergoers, but the play, overall, is provocative.
Thanks to Cristina Todesco‘s set design, Charlie’s apartment is a huge trash container, littered with fast food wrappers, cups and containers on stage and bordering theater floor.
Sound designer David Remedios’ heavy breathing, sea and whale sounds pierce the air between scenes, while Hunter accentuates his theme with references to “Moby Dick” and Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, that gain relevance throughout the play.
Versatile actress Georgia Lyman is fantastic as Charlie’s best friend, Liz, a volunteer nurse, who worries about him, chiding him for not going to the hospital, knowing his congestive heart failure has worsened. Yet, while Liz fusses and frets over Charlie, she brings him unhealthy fast foods. And she doesn’t clean up his debris-littered apartment, either. Like everyone else in the play, Liz has her own hang-ups.
Charlie desperately wants to make amends with his estranged 17-year-old daughter, Ellie, whom Josephine Elwood portrays with venomous sarcasm and ire. Ellie’s a bundle of explosive hatred, angry against the world and everyone she knows. Even her mother, Mary, (sensitively portrayed by Maureen Keillor) thinks Ellie is a monster, lacking humanity. But dear, optimistic Charlie sees goodness in all people, and wants to prove beneath Ellie’s tough shell, she cares. He’s sacrificing his life to help her.
“The Whale” isn’t a pretty subject, but for people who have known, loved and lived with someone who’s obese and helplessly witnessed their demise, Hunter has painted a vivid image that lasts far beyond the final curtain.
BOX INFO: New England premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s off-Broadway hit dramatic two-act, two-hour play, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, through April 5, at Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; also April 2, at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; senior, student and 25-under discounts, also student rush tickets. Call 617-933-8600 or visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com.