‘The Whale’ Is A Poignant Tale of Connecting (4.5 Stars)

The Whale – Written by Samuel D. Hunter; Directed by David R. Gammons; Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company at The Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont St. Boston, MA. Performances through Apr. 5th.

Sometimes going to the theater is an act of faith.

You hear about a show involving a morbidly obese guy with a litany of problems and you ask yourself,”Do I really want to see that?” But of course, if it were that simple the show would never reach the stage, let alone run for years, win multiple awards and be performed across the country.

“The Whale” addresses its characters and subject matter in a way that defies simple black and white. The good guys are also bad guys. The bad guys are victims. The victims may be evil. In real life we play many different roles. Sometimes we are at our best and sometimes not. Life is so much more complex than labels and good art reflects that. In the case of playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s play, the subject is connecting, or failing to connect, with the people around us. Sometimes we make good connections with others and sometimes for whatever the reason, we keep them at a distance.

Initially it’s hard to see much to like in Charlie (John Kuntz), the 600-pound protagonist of the show who seems intent on committing food-induced suicide. He eagerly consumes a meatball sandwich like he’s cramming a .45 into his mouth. But instead of pulling a trigger, he nearly chokes to death. He cares for very little now that his world has nearly flat-lined after the death of his lover, Alan. But Hunter reveals to us, bit by bit, the things that still motivate Charlie, like getting some honest writing out of the students in his online writing class, or the well-being of his intensely angry daughter Ellie (Josephine Elwood), and perhaps more than anything else, his quest for honesty in his own life.

As his health and his mobility fail him, his circle of acquaintances has shrunk to a handful of people. He gets daily visits from his friend and nurse Liz (Georgia Lyman). But we find Liz has her own baggage weighing her down, and she is part nurse, part enabler. She monitors his health, begs him to go to a hospital when his heart erupts, then brings him three sub sandwiches, unwrapping the first one in a tantalizing, almost seductive way. It is clear that Liz cares for Charlie, but there is something more going on here. She blames him for her lack of friends but that sounds like an excuse she provides for herself for not having any. The enabler enables herself as well. Eventually we discover the extent and complexity of their relationship.

A new visitor to the apartment is Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor), a Mormon on a mission. It’s no surprise that we take this teenage door-to-door religion salesman with little seriousness at first, but the excellent script and surprisingly deep performance by O’Connor gradually reveals a real and caring person under the dark, ill-fitting suit, and he will be heard.

That’s writer Hunter’s M.O. He gives you characters that he knows you will react to with preconceived notions, viewing them at arm’s length, then proceeds to humanize them until you possibly make a connection to them. The 600-pound man, the Mormon doorbell ringer, the angry teen, the helpful nurse. By the end of the show you see them all differently from when they first walk on the stage. Hunter seems to delight in turning caricatures into real people.

The stage design is a bit of a shocker, but I won’t give it away. As I perused the set before the start of the show I knew in my heart that there really are places like this in the world, and even many worse. It’s the home of a man no longer interested in his own life and surroundings.

I cannot say enough about the superb acting of the entire cast in ‘The Whale’. Every actor in the show was wonderfully emotional and expressive and handled Hunter’s powerful script beautifully. They expertly delivered funny lines that made you laugh one minute and tore your heart out the next.

It takes a lot of talent to make you feel for Charlie at all, but stalwart actor, writer, and director John Kuntz is up to the task. He leads the group of players down an ever more intense emotional path with a climactic ending that left hardly a dry eye in the house. Josephine Elwood was wonderful as Charlie’s damaged daughter, Ellie. She blended a perfect balance of hurt, anger and callously sinister into her character. A pleasant surprise for me was that I fell into Hunter’s trap, presenting a boring lanky Mormon caricature that was Elder Thomas, then watched him unfold into a person of real interest, taking more and more of the stage over with his personality. Ryan O’Connor did a terrific job bringing Elder Thomas from a downtrodden Napoleon Dynamite to a fiery and deeply concerned believer wanting to change the world. Georgia Lyman was funny and fiery as Liz the nurse and Maureen Keiller was great as Mary, the booze swilling ex-wife deserted by Charlie long ago. Its well worth the trip to watch the SpeakEasy Stage Company do an amazing job with this most often performed of Samuel D. Hunter’s plays. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/index.php