Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"The Whale" by Samuel D. Hunter - SpeakEasy Stage Company Takes a Deep Dive At Some Complex Issues

Charlie on the Walker
John Kuntz, Georgia Lyman, and Ryan O'Connor 
in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "The Whale."
 Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.
SpeakEasy Stage Company is currently presenting the New England Premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's engrossing play, "The Whale."  This play is known -  on the surface, at least -  as the play about the 600 pound house-bound man who is eating himself to death.  But the play is only tangentially about obesity.  The author invites the audience to join him in a deep dive exploring many complex issues.  Many of those issues are interwoven with themes from the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, and from Herman Melville's take on that story in his ionic novel "Moby Dick."

Under the direction of David R. Gammons, a remarkable cast of actors brings Mr. Hunter's characters to life.  Using the artistry of Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco, Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelbeg and Sound Designer David Remedios, Mr. Gammons has created a claustrophobic world in which Charlie has imprisoned himself.  His self-imposed prison is a series of concentric shells - his decaying apartment, his ever-expanding chrysalis of flesh, the growing mound of trash that he and his caretaker refuse to clean, and his penumbra of grief all serve to imprison him in some manner.

Charlie's deep dive into despondency was triggered when his gay lover starved himself into an early grave after having been coerced into listening to a sermon at the Mormon church where he had grown up.  Charlie's response, in a fascinating bit of psychological reaction formation, is to do the opposite and eat himself to death.  As it becomes clear to him and to his caretaker that he has succeeded in inducing a terminal case of congestive heart failure, he feels the need to reach out to the teenage daughter he has not seen since she was a toddler.  To say that complications ensue would be an understatement. The daughter is profoundly angry at the world and at her absentee father.  Played powerfully by Josephine Elwood, Ellie emits death ray looks and verbal outburst, and only agrees to spend time with her father when he bribes here.

A young Mormon missionary, played with great dramatic range by Ryan O'Connor, serves as a foil for the author's desire to make some strong statements about the deleterious effects of religion in general, and on Charlie's life in particular.  Warming to that same theme is Liz, an ex-Mormon who provides care for Charlie while at the same time enabling his eating disorder by bringing him multiple meatball subs and buckets of fried chicken.  Played by Georgia Lyman with great sensitivity, Liz is a study in contrasts - caring for Charlie while being disgusted by him.  As the plot develops, we learn of her relationship to Charlie's departed lover, Alan.  Appearing late in the play is the character of Mary, Charlie's ex-wife, played artfully by Maureen Keiller.  Mr. Hunter clearly revels in presenting juxtapositions of stark contrasts, for Mary embodies anger and disgust at Charlie's past choices and present condition, but also falls into a moment of touching tenderness that comes almost as a coup de theatre.

John Kuntz is stunning in his complex portrayal of Charlie.  We as an audience quickly suspend disbelief and put away the notion that we are looking at an actor employing the artifice of a fat suit. Charlie becomes real to us though Kuntz's nuanced portrayal of Charlie's pain, his conflicting emotions of wanting to reach out while walling himself in.  As written, the character of Charlie is both the White Whale and Captain Ahab, in a fruitless quest to find revenge and retribution for the part of him that has been taken away.

This is a play that is difficult to "enjoy" because it evokes so many conflicting emotions within the audience members, but it is an important play to experience and to ponder..The author offers no facile answers to complex questions, nor does he always try to resolve the pairs of opposites that are presented throughout the drama.

SpeakEasy Stage Website

The play will run at Boston Center for the Arts through April 5.

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