Judging just by advertising for Theatre Exile’s production of THE WHALE, you might get the idea that the fat suit is the star of this show. But that’s just the necessary publicity chatter riding over the deep swells, rip tides, and cetacean forces of remorse, compassion, and connection at work in Samuel D. Hunter’s play.
The cast is anchored by Scott Greer in a magnificent performance as a grieving morbidly obese man. A lesser actor could be upstaged by Alison Roberts’ brilliant and ponderous fat suit, sewn by Jill Keys. But Greer handles it, while taking on the dire physical and psychological extremities of his character’s condition.
Full of regret, Charlie does a lot of apologizing, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” punctuated with ominous wheezing. More than anything he wants to set things right for his daughter. It’s easy to empathize with his frustration in trying to reach her. Campbell O’Hare plays his self-absorbed estranged daughter, Ellie, to the hilt. She hates self-involved, stupid people like Walt Whitman and disgusting fat people like her father. No one’s irredeemable, but Ellie comes close. Incorrigible, intolerant, and bullying, she’s an awful, and, thank goodness, often humorous person.
Liz (Kate Czajkowski), Charlie’s friend, nurse and comestibles enabler, knows well that due to sadness and regret he is killing himself by gross overeating. Though she has informed him and visitors that he won’t last the week, she continues to stock his kitchen cupboards. Czajkowski’s strong performance makes this an act of hope in the face of futility. It’s interesting to note that gluttonous food consumption, although suggested, doesn’t actually take place on stage.
Trevor William Fayle is a totally believable Elder Thomas, a persistent young Mormon who desperately wants to be of spiritual help. This presents a challenge for him, as Charlie, his chosen target, had once urgently hoped that his late partner, Alan, a lapsed Mormon, was over “all this religious stuff.” Amanda Grove makes a late appearance as Charlie’s ex, Mary. At first she greets him with stony silence. Does she still have feelings for him?
Not totally reclusive, Charlie, an online teacher of expository writing, has assigned his students to write about Melville’s Moby Dick. He has memorized one special essay. Its truth and purity comfort him during his spells and attacks: “The author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.” Evolving from his almost exclusive concern about editing for precision and clarity in writing, he begins to ask his students to get to the heart of what is important in life, eliciting from them the simple truth of their experience.
Over nearly two hours (with no intermission) the reasons why Charlie and the other characters are the way they are seep out. Each comes from a different place with worries, secrets, history and hopes, and the play doesn’t take up one minute more than it needs.
One of the beauties of the former garage space of Studio X is that it can be changed every which way to accommodate creative visions and production exigencies. Since Red Speedo closed at the end of November, the performance space has been completely reconfigured. The stage for THE WHALE has been built in a different area and new seating risers have been constructed as well.
The realistic, but somewhat odd setup of Charlie’s apartment has the kitchen separated from the table and chairs by a wide expanse of living room. This is necessary to allow the main character to be up front and center, harbored on his sofa. The dining part of the set looks just like the unused breakfast room of a professor friend of mine, where stacks of books and papers have accumulated on the table for years and more stacks lie all over the floor.
For this tale of a land-locked Idaho guy whose soul is set adrift with Melville and the sea, a nautical motif runs through the sound design. Rising musical interludes during inter-scene blackouts include the calls of sea birds, whale songs and water-whooshes that somehow evolve into bing-bongy notes, as sounds and instrumentation intensifies.
Associate artistic director Matt Pfeiffer has taken an honest, spare, and beautifully clean approach to THE WHALE. (It would be a welcome addition if Exile would include director’s notes in their programs to provide a window into the director’s thoughts and approaches to a play.)
Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Foundation (Genius grant) Fellowship, has written a powerful work that tussles with enormous issues, and Theatre Exile has stepped up to the challenge, big time. [Theatre Exile, Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets.] February 5–March 8, 2015; theatreexile.org.