by Michael Dale
You know those people who can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound? Charlie, the central character of Samuel D. Hunter’s touching drama The Whale, isn’t one of them. Charlie’s dietary habits declined in a sharp downward spiral after losing his lover under tragic circumstances. He lives a reclusive existence in his Idaho home, teaching how to write basic essays from his laptop while spread across his couch, with his students able to hear his voice, but never see his face. When he last used a scale, Charlie weighed in at 550 pounds. He suspects to be close to 600 now.
Costume designer Jessica Pabst provides sufficient padding under Charlie’s casual outfit, but it’s the excellent, detailed performance of Shuler Hensley that really makes us see the character’s weight; wheezing with nearly every breath and making every physical movement an effort. He spends most of the play center stage on the couch, but when he uses a walker to travel to the bathroom, his slow, exhausting journey is heartbreaking to watch.
Charlie nearly suffers a heart attack while masturbating to Internet porn and his life is saved with the help of a chance visit by Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) an earnest young Mormon who came to his door wishing to talk about his church. They’re soon joined by Charlie’s only friend, Liz (Cassie Beck, showing sincere affection through tough love), a nurse with reasons to reject any talk of the Mormon Church.
After taking Charlie’s astronomical blood pressure, Liz flatly states that unless he goes to a hospital now, he’ll be dead before the week is done. But Charlie, who is uninsured, refuses. Instead he uses what might be his final days to reunite with his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy, in a deadpan smart-ass performance that might make you think of Wednesday Addams). They haven't seen each other since she was two, when Charlie, upon figuring out his true sexuality, left his wife, Mary (Tasha Lawrence).
Ellie, who claims to be extremely intelligent, is nevertheless failing in school, and has no interest in spending time with this man she doesn’t know until he offers to pay her and help her learn to write an essay. Helping her achieve the ability to communicate and express herself is the most personal and loving thing he can do with whatever time is left.
Given the circumstances, Hunter’s references to Moby Dick and the Biblical Jonah do stand out as a bit heavy-handed, but the play’s strength is in subtly getting the point across that though the results of Charlie’s emotional problems are evident, the people surrounding him carry deeper, less visible scars. Under Davis McCallum’s direction, the fine cast balances humor and drama, often getting very nasty without turning seriously ugly.
But it's Hensley’s performance – one that would be convincing even if the in-shape actor wasn’t wearing the fat suit – that rises above everything else, showing throughout how Charlie’s heart is truly his most prominent feature.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Shuler Hensley; Bottom: Shuler Hensley and Cory Michael Smith.
After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.