In Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, Charlie (Matthew Arkin) an obese gay man confronting his own mortality reaches out to the daughter he walked out on years ago. Like Hunter’s play A Bright New Boise (produced to justifiable acclaim last year by Rogue Artists in Los Angeles), this drama is set in Idaho, and centers on one troubled man’s quest to connect with lost kin, and secondarily on a younger man’s overwhelming desire to connect with God. Along the way it zeroes in on the relationship between homophobia and established religion which, far from salving a man’s soul, can worm its way in to destroy it. The two plays do share common themes; in Boise, however, familial, spiritual and social themes successfully intermingle to climax in a stunning revelatory denouement. Here the results are less satisfying. Weighed down with awkward symbolism and a couple of irksome plot inconsistencies, The Whale hints at secrets that turn out to be not so secret after all and an emotional payoff that ultimately disappoints.
The play is set in a shabby cluttered one-bedroom, where Charlie lives by himself and earns a living teaching essay-writing online to indifferent students. Barely able to stand, much less walk, he survives with the help of his friend Liz (Blake Lindsley), a nurse, who buys his groceries and monitors his blood pressure and other vital signs. Liz and Charlie are emotionally connected because she’s the sister of Charlie’s dead lover, Alan, who wasted away and finally died some years back after a counseling session at his Mormon church destroyed his spirit. Charlie’s path toward self-destruction differs from Alan’s; he’s killing himself with excess, not deprivation—though it’s worth noting that both men have opted for food as their instrument of self-abuse. One thing that puzzled me was why Liz, who kept begging Charlie to go to the hospital to try to prolong his life, kept stuffing him with KFC and hero subs.
Besides Liz, the other people Charlie interacts with in the four days that encompass the narrative are a young Mormon missionary named Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner), who saves his life when he serendipitously comes knocking as Charlie is gasping for breath, and Ellie (Helen Sadler), his sulky, splenetic 17 year old daughter whose purposeful cruelty he chooses to ignore. Rather late in the game we meet his ex-wife Mary (Jennifer Christopher), still raging from his having left her all those years ago, and still caring about him in spite of it. Charlie cares about her too; there’s a measure of concern for everyone in his large damaged heart: Liz, his wife, his students, and the gawky Mormon youngster who purports to bring him the word of God. But the bulk of his caring is for his daughter whom he loves unconditionally, despite the vile insults she hurls his way and her intractable refusal to grant him the least iota of human respect.
And that brings me to one of the central problems affecting this production in particular: a shortage of complexity and nuance in a play where depth of emotion is tantamount. Most problematic is Sadler’s Ellie. Connecting with Ellie is the driving force behind everything Charlie does from the moment the curtain rises yet, under Martin Benson’s direction, the character is so vicious, so lacking vulnerability, that she’s impossible to care about. The same single noted resonance afflicts the other supporting performances also. Elder Thomas is a role rich with possibility, considering he’s a Mormon kid who’s smoked dope and now wafts in a spiritual wilderness even as he desperately applies himself to his “mission.” But Fenner only scrapes the surface, projecting the persona of a million other gawky nerdish teens instead of creating one that is uniquely his own. As for Arkin, the physicality he brings to the stage—standing, walking, wheezing, even the bare act of struggling to breathe—is impressive. But from where I sat near the back it was hard, much as I wanted to, to extend beyond Charlie’s girth to the suffering spirit within. Like the playwright’s intent, his whale of a human presence evoked interest—but the sought-after connection never quite sparked.
Photos by Scott Brinegar/SCR.
Where: South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays—Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays—Sundays.
Runs through March 31, 2013.
Box Office: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org
Running time: One hour, forty minutes