Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by David R. Gammons
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston) No matter what you’ve heard, The Whale is not a play about obesity. That may be hard to remember when you see a man drowning in his own corpulent flesh, the junk food wrappers strewn around his apartment serving as a testament to his mortal sin.
Everyone in the audience wants this to be a play about obesity, especially since to a person we in the theater on this particular evening are all relatively thin. It’s human nature to see someone in dire straits and try to diagnose why we’re not him, or will not become him. Our hearts go out, but we recoil, and that is the crux of SpeakEasy’s staging of the Whale, which is perhaps the best play to be staged in Boston this year.
Charlie (John Kuntz), an online English professor, is morbidly obese and at death’s door, yet he refuses to go to the hospital. He wants to connect with his long-estranged daughter, Ellie (Josephine Elwood), who hates him as much as she hates everyone in the world. As much as Charlie tries, he can’t seem to stop reaching for connection with others, including Liz (Georgia Lyman), his nurse and friend, and Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor), a visiting Mormon missionary.
As a character, Charlie should become such an easy target for us to pity, to scorn, to compartmentalize. He’s practically begging for it, as he apologizes to those around him over and over again for being who he is. Yet as the play unfolds and he is at times abused, ignored, and fed, it becomes clear that he may be the only one who is dealing with his immense baggage. Charlie may be killing himself bite by bite, but there are many ways to distance oneself from those we love and spiritually and physically die.
It’s a testament to his skills as an actor that Kuntz, largely immobile and acting in a fat suit, deftly refuses to allow Charlie to fall into caricature. We are never once allowed to look away from the trainwreck he has become, nor are we allowed to think ourselves above the fray. Each character in Charlie’s orbit is reprehensible in an utterly familiar way, and each is also redeemable. The cast takes Kuntz’s lead in simultaneously operating on several emotional planes. Lyman infuses the nurse Liz with a veneer of laid-back goodness, but there is hurt and anger beneath that comes out in short bursts of crippling emotional abuse. Elwood manages to create a thoroughly uncomfortable experience with Ellie, who comes across simultaneously as a shallow, cruel and scared teenager and as a heartstopping maneater.
This is not a flawless production. The sound effects between scenes are effective for the first two minutes, but become too distractingly obvious to be effective. Also, there is an incompleteness about each character’s emotional arc; we often know who they are now and where they are headed, but how they got this way is a bit fuzzy, even with the copious amounts of supplied backstory. And please don’t get me started on why it seems necessary on stage and in film to put a trim actor in a fatsuit when there are so many overweight actors dying to play non-comical roles.
Still, this is perhaps the most touching and realistic portrayal I’ve ever seen of obesity, even though this is not about obesity.