When I saw The Whale on opening night in January, my expectations came from the press synopsis which described a fat gay man trying to connect with his estranged 17 year old daughter. The main character lives amidst a shabby, failing, unhealthy lifestyle. Yep, Charlie was all the described yet, what was not revealed in print, Charlie was a compassionate man. True he hadn’t seen his daughter in 17 years, but when did he see her, he gave from his heart unconditional love and sincere parental concern.
In the first scene Charlie is correcting papers when he experiences an almost fatal angina attack. Coincidentally, this happens just as the young Mormon, Elder Thomas knocks on his door. Enter the most expressive and interesting character besides Charlie in the ensemble. From my perspective, I cringed at the Mormon inclusion, but in all honesty Elder Thomas, played by Cory Michael Smith, was a stand-out actor with a stellar performance. I found myself anxious for him to enter every scene.
The Whale is about a man who is lazy, no need to mince words. Through the years he has used his sorrows as an excuse. He feels justified to hide in his apartment, eat junk food, and maintain a small online teaching position from his tattered couch. The play has gaudy, interesting and profound interaction among cast members who have an ersatz desire to help Charlie, but in reality, their lives are just as drab and sad as Charlie’s. Each are living a defenseless, helpless and catastrophic existence. If it wasn’t for sheltering, enabling and attacking their Charlie, they’d have to face their own lives, perhaps differently, but all the same, unexceptional.
The set for The Whale is perfect. The audience is made to feel they’ve accidentally walked into a stranger’s apartment and they’re slightly embarrassed at finding themselves there. The decor was designed to impersonate the space of an inactive person. It is clear at first glance you’ve got a telescopic view of the inner sanctums of a recluse. Evidence that this someone is living nonchalantly in a filthy, dusty, untidy apartment. With too many stacks of papers, rejected soda cans, empty pizza boxes, you want to reach for a bottle of Febreez.
It’s a tragi-comedy with far too many real life sequences to make it light hearted, but rest assured the dialogue is quite humorous. The Elder Thomas gives a fine performance, as does Charlie. The rest of the cast, all women, overreacted too loudly over their frustration with Charlie and their own circumstances. The Whale has a unique storyline. It’s a play embedded in our times touching on the abundant angst felt all over the world. It incorporates common threads woven worldwide, children are spoiled, husbands and wives split. Lovers die. Homosexuality is real, so is living with your choices and what you’ve allowed your life to become.
The Whale, written by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Hal Brooks.Playing through February 25, 2012, at the Ricketson Theatre, DCPA complex.