Drama and humor mix well in The Whale
It takes guts and ingenuity to write a play in which the protagonist is a morbidly obese man, constantly on stage and essentially tethered in one place. Charlie is dying of his own weight. He sleeps on the sofa — propped up so he can breathe — and spends almost the entire day there, occasionally making a laborious trip to the bathroom. This static setup means that most of the action in Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale — which received a reading at the Denver Center Theatre Company's New Play Summit last year and is now getting a full production — is psychological, emotional, metaphorical. Charlie does maintain one significant link to the outside world: He teaches composition courses online, urging bored students to be honest and expressive in their writing. He is visited daily by an old friend, Liz, a nurse, who takes care of him and constantly begs him to go to a hospital and make some attempt to save his own life. But Liz also enables his sickness by providing sodas, hoagies, a giant bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Her reasons for this — and for her attachment to him — become clear as the play progresses. Another visitor is a nineteen-year-old Mormon, Elder Thomas, who knocks at the door and becomes determined to rescue Charlie's soul.
What's left of Charlie's vitality is focused on a single goal: a rapprochement with his teenage daughter, Ellie. He had left her and her mother many years earlier after falling in love with another man, Alan, who has since died. The drama of the piece lies in Hunter's skillful revelation of each character's inner reality, and in Charlie's desperate struggles — for breath, for connection. He wants to teach what he understands about significance and truth to his uncaring students; he wants to help Ellie, both physically and spiritually. This is no easy task. The girl is vengeful toward the world in general and filled with contempt for the huge, wallowing father who deserted her.
The script is surprising, irreverent, funny, filled with irony, rage and despair. But beneath everything, there's a profound tenderness. Liz may be annoyed with Charlie most of the time, but her annoyance stems from her concern for him, and she nurses him devotedly. To playwright Hunter's credit, Elder Thomas is no religious caricature, but a complex youngster with a troubled past. His religious faith is cruel and judgmental — and yet it fills him with ineffable radiance and joy. Even justifiably angry ex-wife Mary retains some thread of concern for her ex-husband and a tinge of solicitude for her exasperating daughter. Only Ellie remains incorrigible. She's fun to watch because her comments and manipulations are so vicious, and because she fits the image of the bratty teenager we all carry. But eventually you can't help feeling that there really is something horribly wrong with this girl. The genesis may be in her father's desertion and her mother's brusqueness, but Mary's description of her as evil simply fits. Charlie's determination to cast a benign light on Ellie's actions appears pathetic, and his attempts to reach her doomed. And still you hope for even a fleeting moment of clarity and peace between them.
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 19, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Director Hal Brooks has cast this literate and multi-layered play well, though I have one small concern. Angela Reed is terrific as Liz, and so is Tasha Lawrence as Mary, but both characters bristle with anger much of the time, both women speak in a somewhat similar tone, and both share a rather brittle, vibrating affect. Add Ellie's sulks and taunts, and the entire stage seems to vibrate with female anger — which in no way detracts from the fact that, like the other two women, Nicole Rodenburg as Ellie is riveting to watch. Cory Michael Smith plays Elder Thomas with a sweetly contrasting innocence and conviction. Charlie's broken kindliness is at the play's heart, and Tom Alan Robbins — trapped in a fat suit that he wears with as much verisimilitude as possible — brings a full measure of humanity to this sad and hopeful character.
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