Salvation explored with beautiful brutality
|Victory Gardens Theater presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Salvation comes in many forms. For English teacher Charlie, salvation lies in self-destruction. Since the death of his boyfriend, he’s ballooned to over 600 pounds and is determined to eat himself to death. Victory Gardens’ The Whale could have gone wrong in so many ways, starting with Samuel D. Hunter’s script and ending with the physical and emotional challenges of depicting a morbidly obese man onstage. Instead, The Whale is a beautiful and brutal embodiment of the horrifying journey to saving others and oneself.
Charlie (Dale Calandra) can barely move, and his body is on the verge of shutting down. He teaches online English courses to reluctant students and relies on snarky nurse friend Liz (Cheryl Graeff) for blood pressure checks, emotional support and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. More than anything, Charlie longs to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Leah Karpel) – though she lives in the same town and he receives monthly updates from her troubled mother (Patricia Kane), Charlie hasn’t seen her in 15 years. And when Charlie is on the brink of death, a knock on the door brings an earnest Mormon missionary (Will Allan), who may have information on what exactly killed Charlie’s ex-Mormon lover.
In late 2011 I reviewed LiveWire’s production of another Hunter play, A Bright New Boise. Though the story of a displaced evangelical Christian taking a job at Hobby Lobby to reconnect with his estranged son shared several themes and an Idaho setting with The Whale, Boise didn’t work for me. The story seemed disjointed, the characters unsympathetic, and the most inopportune moments were played for laughs. Hunter takes a more refined approach in The Whale, delving deeper into the protagonist’s psyche with well-placed moments of organic humor. Though the play is a plethora of poor choices, there’s a gut-wrenching reason behind each one. Reality TV has exploited the concept that the human race is a messed-up bunch, but Hunter elevates this revelation into astounding, absorbing art. His language and sense of place are so vivid, I swore I could smell Charlie’s apartment: body odor, stale fast food containers and shame. At one point, a character says “take a breath” and without thinking, I did.
Chelsea Warren’s remarkable set design is both concrete (Charlie’s confined, disgusting apartment) and abstract (like a diorama and an island, it’s square in the middle of an empty stage), and Heather Gilbert’s lighting effects are spare but breathtaking. Janice Pytel deserves all the kudos and awards: creating a convincing 600-pound man is no easy feat, yet I never felt I was watching a padded actor. Director Joanie Schultz skillfully manages the script’s many highs and lows, and has a terrific ensemble. Allan (so wonderful in Steppenwolf’s season opener Good People) is stellar as Mormon missionary Elder Thomas, surprisingly flawed yet still earnestly eager to redeem just one person. No one plays a teenage girl better than Karpel – rather than over-exaggerating her “whatevers”, rolling her eyes and throwing tantrums, she gives Ellie a convincing complexity: genuine anger mixed with rampant fear of the unknown. And Calandra is simply masterful: his Charlie is a force of nature whose grief never overwhelms his intelligence, dark humor and admiration for his perpetually ticked off, troublemaking offspring. A gun to the head is too cut and dry for Charlie: he’s in charge of his own decline and he’ll make it poetic.
It takes skill to put human mess on stage. A playwright can’t just throw in tragedy and call it art: the public can just read the news for that. What sets The Whale apart is its unexpected drollness, surprising pathos and unrelenting desire to save even the most repulsive of human beings. Hunter doesn’t just show us an obese man at the end of his life: he probes the loneliness we all feel, the desire to connect, the truth buried in every family. The Whale is ugly. It’s magnificent. It’s essential. It’s theater not to be missed.
The Whale continues through May 5th at Victory Gardens Theater’s Začek McVay Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $35-$50, and are available by phone (773.871.3000) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes