Life, death, parenting, relationships and love are all tested in this touching and weighted drama.
The story of The Whale is fundamentally a story of a father trying to reconnect with a daughter, and he’s doing so by trying to teach her how to write a good essay.
The Whale is a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter. The show is described by the playwright as “a story of a man’s last chance at redemption, and finding beauty in the most unexpected places.” It premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Sharp Theatre on October 12, 2012. The play received the 2013 Drama Desk Award and the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. With these accolades it’s bound to be a good show…right?
The title alone would lead you to assume The Whale is about animals, but the playwright uses it as a play on words describing a man in his 40s, weighing in at around 600 pounds. Director Ryan McIntire brilliantly brings this play to life on Generic Theater’s stage and offers a touching—and somewhat funny—look at the wildly dysfunctional relationship that is a man, his nurse, his daughter and ex-wife.
We meet Charlie, played magnificently by Garney Johnson, who shuffles onto the stage and sinks into a sagging couch in a drab living room littered with cans, food wrappers and trash. Our first look at Charlie is startling. To play him, Johnson, who isn’t 600 lbs in real life, wears a neck-to-padded-ankle fat suit, designed to unbelievable perfection by Katelyn Jackson, underneath a gargantuan sweatshirt and sweatpants. With his scraggly beard and messy hair, he looks, sounds and moves like an obese person who’s given up on personal maintenance. Every breath is a death rattle and every step a struggle. Johnson plays Charlie with every inch of his body. He shows the calm of the soon-to-die, the resolve to make right what he can, and a great deal of compassion for the other passengers on this journey. We see the depth of character that Johnson creates: he is a man riddled with guilt, pain and love. We see every emotion. Charlie’s an online writing tutor; he reads phenomenally bad essays all day long. The Whale begins and ends profoundly, with the reciting of a school kid’s bad essay on Moby Dick. But that one essay holds a critical place in his clogged and failing heart— it’s the only thing keeping it pumping.
Charlie is visited by four people in the two acts of The Whale. First, we meet a nervous 19-year-old missionary, Elder Thomas, played by Nathan Matthews. Matthews seems keenly attuned to his character of a low-key young Mormon, who comes to Charlie’s door at an extremely awkward time and becomes his unlikely confidant. He tells Charlie he’s on a mission, which turns out to be untrue. However, he was on a mission to find himself through Charlie and give Charlie information on the death of his lover. They have a moment between the two of them which keeps us tuned in. Johnson and Matthews show tremendous vulnerability, restraint and ability in this tense scene. Then we meet Charlie’s longtime friend and no nonsense caretaker Liz, a nurse who warns him that his blood pressure is dangerously high even as she supplies him with fried chicken and meatball subs, played with brutal honesty by Bree Holcombe. You know she cares for Charlie but has a unique way of showing it. Holcombe’s portrayal has us a little concerned for Charlie. We think, “Who let her be his nurse?!” But by the end we come to love Liz, thanks to the layers which Holcombe reveals to us in perfect timing.
Next, enter Charlie’s estranged 17-year-old daughter Ellie, played by Jordan Howell, who Charlie hasn’t seen since she was 2. Her first reaction to seeing her father is “you’re disgusting … just being around you is disgusting.” That moment takes our breath away. Literally: the lady sitting next to me gasped. Ms. Howell plays a truly over-the-top example of the terrible teen years, and with such pent-up tension and side-eyed glances of both contempt and fleeting neediness that she elicits a weird sympathy of her own. She makes it clear Ellie is perhaps every bit as penned in as her father, only by mistrust and fear instead of flesh. It’s a wholly memorable performance. Even she is finally affected by her father in the end. I asked the director, “They don’t ever touch in the show, was that intentional?” He tells me, “It was, and I was hoping someone noticed.” Well I most certainly did and it was gut-wrenching. Now, if I may be nitpicky I would encourage Ms. Howell to practice smoking that bowl, so we believe she is truly a rebel without a cause.
The final guest we see is Charlie’s ex-wife, Ellie’s mother Mary played by Sarah Kingsley. She is angry, unsympathetic and as addicted to booze as Charlie is to carbs. As Ellie’s mother, Ms. Kingsley shows us her she cares for Ellie and is trying to do what she thinks is best for her. In her interactions with Charlie, we see where there was once love. I wish, though, that Ms. Kingsley’s portrayal dug a little deeper into the emotional wreck that we imagine Mary to be.
The whole saga unfolds over a span of five days. Avery Mason’s meticulously conventional apartment set design sets the tone for this heavy drama. It’s just right for the immobile whale. We believe every bit that this apartment belonged to this man who has been a recluse for so many years. Make sure you check out the apartment number on the door when it’s opened all the way — so clever. The lighting, designed by Dawn McIntire, added much insight to the story of the characters. I asked the director, “Why doesn’t the light go to full black between scenes?” The answer was quite sensible. This show happens in a span of five days, so going to a brown-out instead of a black-out allowed you to see what was going on with Charlie in between the times no one was there or when one character exits a scene that is going to continue “an hour later.” The cast execute these moments well. They stay in character completely and we believe that time is passing.
Charlie may never realize his yearning to salvage some kind of bond with his daughter. But he is driven, and doomed, to try. Trying to make sense of life is hard work. But trying to make sense about whether to see this show or not is easy. Get ready for a heavy, tear-jerking (yes, I shed a tear) but rewarding 110-minute psychological ride.
The Whale runs thru May 14 at the Generic Theater. Thurs, Fri, Sat 8:00pm, Sun 2:30pm. Tix: $15 Reg, $12 Student/Senior/Military, $13 each Groups 10+. Click here to buy now. And let us know in the comments what you thought of the show!