Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Big Hearted and Gut-Wrenching At Once, Yet Also Fiercely Funny!
There may be no more startling image on a Southern California stage right now than the one greeting audiences at Costa Mesa Playhouse, when the lights go up on “The Whale” — an affecting, tendentious drama by Samuel D. Hunter, that opened last night. On a gamey, saggy, trash-strewn couch visibly warping beneath him, sits a bulbous behemoth of a man wearing voluminous sweats weighing in at more than 600 pounds. He will remain there — beached, to employ the author’s own metaphor — in his own drab, northern Idaho living room littered with empty KFC and pizza boxes for much of the evening’s nearly two-hour running time, an image of the human body at its most grotesque, at least according to conventional notions of good looks, to say nothing of good health.
The sheer bulk of the vast mountain of flesh before us, a sad, reclusive soul named Charlie — a grief-stricken, guilt-racked man who teaches expository writing over the Internet — may not be the most disturbing aspect of his presence. That would be the certain heart attack awaiting him at any moment, marked by the labored wheezing that accompanies his every breath. He sounds like a man battling through his death throes. And as Director Michael Serna’s production unfolds, it becomes clear that Charlie has been bent on self-destruction for years, a lifestyle galvanized by the ticking clock of mortality, real or imagined, and he is close to achieving his goal.
In this gentle, suffering giant, Mr. Hunter, whose “Bright New Boise” won him several notable accolades when it was produced in New York in 2010, has created a distinctive and intriguingly complicated central protagonist. It is rare enough to see even mildly overweight characters depicted in new plays. But never before have I encountered anyone resembling Charlie, portrayed with such easygoing humanity and grace as by the great, heavily upholstered Peter Hilton (“Of Mice and Men”).
And what a moving, and mesmerizing Charlie he is. Gone is the powerful voice of Pastor Paul in “The Christians.” His voice is weak and strained from his damaged heart. You know he's wearing a fat suit since a real 5-600 pound man would also have rolls of fat around his neck and hands, but Mr. Hilton's every move and word make such details quickly forgotten. Just watching his agonizing struggle to lift himself off the couch to waddle to the bathroom with the help of a walker makes you catch your breath.
As the almost-parable, near-melodrama (wrapped around Charlie’s ample frame) strikes so many familiar notes about mending broken relationships, it is adorned with allusions to “Moby-Dick” and the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, which adds poetic fiber to the play’s standard fabric.
Marooned inside what must be one of the biggest fat suits ever constructed for the theater, it’s impossible to ignore the disturbing aspects of his corpulence — from which neither Mr. Hunter nor Mr. Hilton shy away — and we never lose sight of Charlie’s agile if troubled mind and the compassionate heart beating so laboriously beneath the layers of flesh.
For a 15-year hermit, Charlie gets lots of visitors. His first guest is an unexpected one, the Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (Jack Whitaker; “Our Town”). This perky youngster finds Charlie to be a willing listener for reasons that are deeply personal. Charlie’s lover Alan (unseen in the play) was also Mormon, and he was wracked with guilt over the conflict between his sexuality and the church’s teachings. In neat contrast to Charlie, who is essentially eating himself to death, Alan fell ill and allowed himself to waste away after a traumatic last visit to his local church. Charlie wants to use the eager missionary to discover just what happened that day.
Charlie’s other immediate objective is a reconciliation with his rather glum yet funny daughter, Ellie (Sophia White; “She Kills Monsters”), whom he hasn’t seen in more than a decade after he left her mother, Mary (Shelly Day; “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” who has one of the strongest scenes in the play). With a dark scowl and a monotone enameled in malice, Ellie is a glaring caricature of a troubled teenager, a misfit determined to out-mean the mean girls. Charlie wants urgently to reconnect, but it might be easier for him to run a marathon now than to forge an emotional bond with the electrically embittered young woman who arrives at his apartment.
Realizing that his time is limited (as well as his movements), and bound to a couch in a tiny living room, he relies on the help of his only friend, a protective Liz (Mia Anderson; “Avenue Q”), to get him through the rough spots of daily living. But the often-exasperated Liz, Alan’s sister, also has her artificial aspects. A nurse by training, she wavers perversely between imploring Charlie to check into a hospital and enabling his self-destruction by delivering piles of greasy chicken. What pleasure she derives from this little game is hard to fathom. But even if he agrees to go to the hospital, he seems too far gone to not live up to Liz's prediction that he won't last past Thursday — the last of the four days of his life that we witness.
The play dabbles in the realms of homophobia, mental health, and religion, and there are many surprising turns due to the unpredictability of Charlie’s health...not to mention his soul. Each day gives more significance leading to Charlie’s final day as his ongoing battle with congestive heart failure, his boyfriend Alan’s death, and his own inner demons force him to try and reconcile with his conscience.
And the state of his soul should become a kind of monomania for the young Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (unctuous, charming and baby-smooth, but not wholly guileless himself). Issues of faith surface when the Elder comes knocking at the door, and may hold the key to unanswered questions about the death of Charlie’s male partner. While Mr. Hilton’s Charlie is a nonbeliever, the play’s literary references — notably to Whitman and Melville — “point to the divine,” in Mr. Hunter’s words. There’s also a sense of religious purpose in the urgency with which he steers his students and his angry teenage daughter to seek honesty and truth.
The Whale begins and ends neatly, with the recitation of a schoolkid’s essay on Moby-Dick. Charlie reads phenomenally bad essays all day long. But this one holds a special place in his clogged and failing heart — it’s the only thing keeping it pumping. Having lost everything and everyone important to him, including the love of his life, Charlie has done more than eat his feelings. He’s begun accumulating dollars, with an eye to his legacy. He’s made himself a kind of storehouse of undistributed love. Because, Charlie, you see, is an optimist. A man with great empathy for others who somehow cannot extend the same generosity of spirit to himself.
In fact, Charlie, though practically immobile, eludes every harpoon. Both confined and magnified by the director’s brilliant optical illusion of a set (Michael Serna is also scenic designer), assistant directed by Chris Mertan, lit incredibly by designer Ryan Lindhardt, audibly augmented by sound designer Daniel Mertan, and of course, outfitted by costume designer Nicholas Hirata, Charlie makes everything oversized. He and his motives are only a mystery because no one will look at him head-on; they insist on imprinting him with their own mysteries, obsessions, and quests. Yet Charlie’s not looking for anything like a new health plan, a round of new friends or divine intervention. Nothing quite so complicated…He’s just looking for the simple, beautiful truth, a legacy for the only thing that matters to him, and an easy exit.
“THE WHALE,” continues through September 25th at Costa Mesa Playhouse, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm, Sunday afternoons at 2:00 pm. A special Thursday, September 15th, 8:00 pm performance will be Pay What You Will. For Tickets and Reservations, visit https://costamesaplayhouse.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Kerrin Serna