It hit me the minute the curtain went up on The Whale, Samuel D. Hunter’s marvelous, heartbreaking play, in an exceptionally fine production at Theatre Exile: Although television now regularly trafficks in exploitative reality shows about the morbidly obese, you almost never see fat people on stage.
I can think of a couple of exceptions – Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten calls for the heroine to be “so oversize… that she is almost a freak.” But, to O’Neill, that just means 5’11” tall, and weighing about 180 lbs. – and in any case, the role is almost always played by an actress not notable for her girth.
Closer to the point would be Albert Innaurato’s The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie, where – as in The Whale – a grossly overweight leading man is eating himself to death.
But Benno Blimpie – a superb play overdue for revival – is a phantasmagoria, which focuses on Benno’s inner life. What makes The Whale so shattering is its reality.
The protagonist, a housebound writer named Charlie (played by Scott Greer), tutors online, yet can’t escape a harsh, unrelenting and very real world, full of judgments, and etched in vivid detail in Theatre Exile’s production, where the performance space is configured in a way that’s cruelly metaphoric – a proscenium that looks five times as wide as it is tall.
Charlie has occasional visitors – Liz (Kate Czajkowski), a caring if salty-tongued nurse; also, more recently, his daughter, Ellie (Campbell O’Hare), who virtually defines “angry teenager.” There’s even a sweet, slightly awkward boy, a Mormon missionary called Elder Thomas (Trevor William Fayle), whose visits are another darkly ironic joke – Charlie’s gay lover, Alan, was a former Mormon, whose death started Charlie on his 10-plus year eating binge.
As the action unfolds in a series of short scenes, some painful truths become clear. Even people who want to help usually can’t, and often have an agenda. Religion may save some souls, but it destroys others. And there are few situations more isolating than obesity – Charlie seems like a brilliant, imaginative, caring teacher, but the fact is he can hold down this job only because his students don’t know what he looks like.
If this all sounds incredibly depressing… well, it is. Yet, to Hunter’s great credit, there is such compassion and humor in the writing that it holds more than our attention – it touches us profoundly.
This is also due to director Matt Pfeiffer’s nuanced production. All the actors shine, and, as Charlie, the great Scott Greer does more than that, in a performance of emotional luminosity that never looks for a moment like performing – it seems to be pure truth.
Be forewarned: The Whale is not an easy play to watch. But you will be richly rewarded if you do.