Speak Easy Stage’s “The Whale”: a review

Cast of The Whale

Cast of “The Whale” (Glenn Perry photography)

By Robert Israel

It is a scene that will cause you to wince: Charlie, played by the incomparable John Kuntz in a “fat suit,” is seated center stage at the Boston Center of the Arts Calderwood Pavillion amidst the clutter of empty soda pop bottles and snack food wrappers, his corpulence weighing him down, mourning the loss a his gay lover by consuming vast quantities of food as his poison of choice.

The action of “The Whale,” by Samuel D. Hunter, now at Speak Easy Stage through April 5, doesn’t stray from this squalid scene for the simple reason that Charlie, who weighs over 600 pounds, is barely ambulatory. Instead, the cast of four players comes to him: his ex-wife, Mary (Maureen Keiller), his friend/nurse, Liz (Georgia Lyman), a young roving Mormon recruiter (Ryan O’Connor), and his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Josephine Elwood).

Directed by David R. Gammons, the play is demanding but worthy of your attention. It is a powerful portrait of not just one person but several intertwined lives, each person grasping feverishly onto the unraveling strands of a common bond: their human dignity.

Charlie’s visitors are not coming around for fireside chats. They arrive at his door to either enable him in his misery by bringing him more food, thereby hastening his demise, or to look upon him with pity and disgust. But yet while he’s his own man and makes his own decisions, he needs these human connections. When he receives help he is grateful, but nonetheless, apologizes for everything, knowing he is wearing his visitors down.

Look upon him as a symbol for Everyman: in his infinite capacity to love, he has sucked the weight of the world into himself — all of the pains of others, but especially his own personal pain. He wears this pain, not as a crown of achievement, but as a crown of thorns.

The show belongs to John Kuntz, a veteran actor who embraces this role with depth, pathos, humor, anguish. At first I felt his portrayal was too smarmy, too sweet. But as the scenes unfolded, I realized this is the character, generous to a fault, even if that generosity is monstrous.

There are many surprises along the way as the characters reveal themselves as flawed beings trapped in their own human wrappers of enablement, alcoholism, Mormonism, marijuana, blame and more blame. I will not reveal these but will only say, the journey from first scene to last is well worth taking.

A particular moment that stands out in the playwright’s craft of making us keenly aware of each character’s humanity occurs when Liz realizes the extent of her enablement, and as she comes to this realization, we experience it at the same time. This is not a new theatrical device. Oedipus blinds himself onstage when he realizes he has killed his father and has slept with his mother. Yet in “The Whale” it comes off as if witnessed for the first time. It’s that powerful. It’s that effective.

Hasten to this production. And then, after absorbing all that it reveals, reflect on your own journey and the shared journeys of those who love you.

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