MORE great theater in town–this time at SpeakEasy Stage Company which presents the New England premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s off-broadway hit THE WHALE. Superbly cast and tackling a profusion of problems, the show rivets us with its initial image. But first– we hear the ocean; then we see a 600 pound man sitting center stage on a collapsed sofa, in a sea of garbage, tapping on his laptop, teaching online students how to write, masturbating, watching reruns, and eating himself to death.
The immensely talented writer, director, actor John Kuntz (puns will unconsciously present themselves throughout this review) plays Charlie, the morbidly obese gay man embedded in layers of fat and a trash-packed apartment in Northern Idaho. That Charlie remarks in the video scene above that his vital organs are two feet in– suggests both the humor and the depth of the issues raised here.
Charlie desires connection but has made himself difficult to reach. His salty-tongued caregiver Liz tries—she truly “cares” for him but also enables him, with meatball subs and such, while making mincemeat of anyone who gets in her way. Georgia Lyman is wryly funny and moving in the part: too much makeup and jewelry adorn a pushy personality who has no trouble cutting through the BS– but ultimately admits she has no idea what she’s doing.
Equally confused is the hapless young Mormon missionary –ironically monikered “Elder Thomas”– who rings Charlie’s bell and stumbles in on a scene he’s just not ready for. Ryan O’Connor is terrific in a complicated role; a simmering anger percolates through his intense earnestness as his religious worldview and troubled background are gradually revealed.
Then there’s Ellie—Charlie’s estranged teenage daughter and a hotbed of hostility. Josephine Elwood is hilariously caustic as an ultra angry young woman who despises her obese father for coming out of the closet and leaving her chain-smoking, hard-drinking mother Mary. Maureen Keiller is tough, vulnerable, and especially poignant in some of the play’s last moments.
So how are all of these characters, their circumstances, and modus operandi– Mormonism, obesity, homosexuality, essay writing—linked? And how is the tragedy of Charlie’s partner which prompted Charlie’s overeating, connected to the tale of Moby Dick, and the biblical story of Jonah and the whale? These two stories run throughout the play and circle back on one another in coincidental ways that to my mind feel somewhat unconvincing and unresolved. The ending is unsettling and mysterious.
But two things are clear: one–all of these characters are at odds with themselves in some way which prevents them from finding meaning through relationship, and two– this talented cast penetrates the material in a way that transcends any of the play’s flaws. All roads meet in the character of Charlie who’s determined to help his students find themselves and their true voices through writing; thus, a gargantuan task falls to John Kuntz who anchors this extraordinary ensemble in one of the most demanding and evocative performances of the year.
Not only is Kuntz wearing prosthetics and a huge, claustrophobic “fat suit” that weighs 60 pounds all of which takes almost an hour to put on, but within minutes he makes us forget his superficial grotesqueness and instead, draws us to Charlie’s capacious humanity, his vulnerability, sweetness, and courage. John Kuntz, insightfully directed by David R. Gammons, and supported by a phenomenal costume, sound, lighting, and scenic design team, has taken us to the murky depths of the human condition, located the beast, then lead us beyond, to uncover what makes him move–and so move us.
See THE WHALE at SpeakEasy Stage Company through APRIL 5