The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Jackie DeGiorgis. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Monk Schane-Lydon and Sam Therrien; photo: John Kickery of Kickery Kreative Photography
"Why didn't God give us the right answers to begin with?"
Meaghan Rogers and Monk Schane-Lydon; photo: JohnKickery of Kickery Kreative Photography
Asking the right questions and getting the right answers is an obsession with Charlie, the 600 pound hero of Samuel D. Hunter's play "The Whale" being performed right now by Town Players of Pittsfield at The Whit. He is a teacher with one on-line class in English at the moment, a class that gives him little satisfaction but from which he derives a lot of the same, just because he is doing it. He has his favorites and among them is someone who has written a first-class analysis of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." Though we don't discover its origins until the show is nearly over, we suspect we know and finding we're right doesn't diminish our delight in the confirmation.
Charlie can barely move, can barely breathe and can barely communicate his motivations and his personal truths. His gross overweight, his "whaledom" overpowers him and us too. We feel his confinement and move rarely, adjusting our positions in our chair carefully and deliberately. The character affects us oddly. We may not like this man but our empathy levels accellerate and that's all to the good, for someone has to emerge as the sympathetic character here. Getting behind one of the five peculiar people in this play is difficult. As played by the mostly amateur company in Pittsfield it is a miracle we can actually like any one of them.
The worst human being on the stage is Ellie, Charlie's estranged daughter, played with haughty, naughty habits in a naughty, haughty set of costumes by Sam Therrien. She is an abusive personality wrapped up in the usual teen-age angst.Her motives in visiting the father she hasn't seen in nearly 15 years are never clear, but she has discovered one thing about him that appeals to her, and that is his money. Therrien's piercings, tattoos, torn leggings and too tight skirts reveal this character's mean-streak quirks very well, but even moreso is her manner and her mannerisms. She has an irritating face, an irritating voice and an attitude that stretches from one side of the stage to the other. She is a taker, not a sharer or giver. Therrien plays each of these elements with guts and a manic side. It's almost as though, from the outset, she has been primed to travel the wrong road with determination. Her work here is most compelliing, if not attractive, and you cannot take your attention away from her for even a split second without feeling as though you've betrayed some sort of signed agreement.
Equally annoying is a young Mormon, Elder Thompson, played with an almost sinful glee by Dane Shiner. Thompson determines to bring the peace of his religion to Charlie to ease his final days. What we learn about Thompson, however, is enough to shatter any sort of belief. Shine does the sweetness, the bumbling, the single-minded idiocy deliciously, but when tables turn on him, he almost makes us care about him for the first time. He comes close, but it's hard to like the man once we really know the man. Shiner does well, but could be better, and still we like and enjoy his company on stage.
Nancy Schaffer has the hard role, the ex-wife of The Whale, come to settle scores and give us, the audience, the background we're missing on this man and his own, personal mission to love and be loved. She resents his leaving her for a young man, a student of his. She resents him marrying her and giving her a child she cannot manage. She resents the room he lives in and she resents anyone who tries to like fat Charlie. No one can love this woman, and as Schaffer plays pround Mary, we even have trouble sympathizing with her, our sympathy going to him instead for having lived with her even for a while. Schaffer succeeds in making us follow in Ellie's footprints and hating her.
Liz, a sort-of nurse who looks after Charlie is the most sympathetic of the people in his life. It was unclear to me if she was the sister of Charlie's lover Allen or just a friend, or a professional in their lives, but she is the one who discovered the dead body in the bed and has never forgiven God and the world for bringing that death about. Played by Meaghan Rogers, the actress almost steals the show. It's a fine performance, a shining star performance.
Monk Schane-Lydon plays big old Charlie. Wearing a fat-suit created by George Veale he can sometimes barely be seen over the stomach hump and he becomes physically lost though never less of a presence. Schane-Lydon is a very good actor and he never lets his human bulk get in the way of his interpretation of this man who is a regular human being, flawed of course, who is trying to live his life out in the best way possible. For him the weight may be embarrassing, but it is just one thing about which he must suffer while moving forward. The actor here brings an enormous sense of reality to what is sometimes blatantly fake. His performance offers tenderness, friendship, an apologetic soul and a genuine cheeriness at receiving visitors. This is a very complex part to play and sometimes nuance slips away from Schane-Lydon, but he has a mountain to hide his molehills and he can pull off the hidden bits the script affords him with a certain ease. His illness is well portrayed and never over-played. He shows us a gay man who defies all the aspects of the gay world and still has a loving relationship to cherish in memory. It is a performance to applaud and cherish.
Director Jackie DeGeorgis has done a lovely job putting this play about big issues into the small space at The Whitney Center for the Arts. Her large central character cannot move too often or too far and that limits how she can maneuver the rest of the cast, but once again there is a naturalness about her work here. She gives her characters motivations through Charlie's actions and there is never a false move or line reading. DeGeorgis has done a fine job here.
She is abetted by her designers, Ryan Cavanaugh (sets), Rob Dumais (lights) and Sam Therrien (costumes). All in all the details matter here: the couch on cinder blocks; the piles of books; the trash littered everywhere. You know the landlord is waiting to take back the apartment, clean out the stench and rent it at a higher price to someone else as soon as possible. You can feel it and you can see its a justified wish.
The show's run is running out, so get a ticket and see it if you can. You may hate it, but you'll never forget it. You'll be deep in a reality you never dreamed could come your way.
Dane Shiner and Nancy Schaffer; photo: John Kickery of Kickery Kreative Photography
Monk Schane-Lydon and Nancy Schaffer; photo: John Kickery of Kickery Kreative Photography
The Whale plays at The Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Avenue, Pitsfield, MA, through March 26. For information and tickets call 413-443-9279 or go on line to www.townplayers.org.