BWW Reviews: THE WHALE is a Thought Provoking, Well Acted Drama
Upon entering Hyde Park Theatre for a chick and a dude's current production of The Whale, you get several clues about the central character of Charlie. His apartment, designed by Michael B. Raiford, is absolutely disgusting. Pizza boxes and KFC buckets litter the floor, and the couch, which has seen better days, is propped up on cinder blocks. Between the set decoration and the title, one can guess that Charlie's going to be on the larger side, and he is. Thanks to an extraordinarily believable fat suit constructed by Kelly Ruiz, Charlie (Shanon Weaver) is a 600 pound man. But The Whale, which could easily be a play about a fat suit, has far more to it.
The play, written by Samuel D. Hunter, is never about weight. It's about how people cope with loss. Charlie's Mormon boyfriend Alan, has starved himself to death when he's not able to cope with the guilt he feels regarding his sexuality and his relationship to the church. At least that's what we're led to believe. Alan's illness began after his last visit to the church, something he never discussed before his death. After Alan's death by anorexia, Charlie takes the opposite approach and chooses death by obesity. (Before I go any further, I should mention that there's bound to be a moment where audience members question why Hunter would suggest that anorexia and obesity are choices and not diseases. I'd love to say that Hunter makes it clear that these are the choices of his characters and not all people affected by anorexia or obesity, but I'm not entirely certain that would be an accurate assumption of what Hunter's trying to say). Alan's sister Liz (Erin Barlow) copes with her brother's death by becoming Charlie's nurse. If she can't save her brother, maybe she can save Charlie. Even Charlie's estranged family has their coping mechanisms. Judging by her heavy pour, Charlie's ex-wife Mary, played with effective simplicity by Elizabeth Mason, has a bit of a drinking problem. Their teenage daughter Ellie, which Kayla Newman plays to snarky, bitchy perfection, copes with everything by smoking pot and posting her horrendous thoughts on an internet equivalent to the Mean Girls "burn book." Even the perky Mormon missionary (the charming Jon Cook) who visits Charlie seems to use his religion as a crutch to help him deal with his past.
Though Hunter's text does have a few issues-the somewhat inaccurate rhetoric about obesity and eating disorders, a couple of unnecessary motifs involving Moby Dick and Jonah and the Whale, and a rushed, melodramatic ending-there's much more to love in Hunter's work than there is to criticize. His characters never really fall into the archetypes that they could be pigeonholed into. The kindhearted Liz has some ball-busting tendencies, and though she constantly pleads with Charlie to go to the hospital, she still reluctantly brings him fried chicken. Ellie says that she's disgusted by Charlie (even if she didn't say it, Newman's facial expressions say it all), but she still comes to visit him regularly. Even Charlie, who is so depressed and alone that he's killing himself through his obesity, still sees hope in others, particularly his hateful daughter. In addition to Hunter's skilful construction of his characters, he's capable of creating dialogue that is believable, honest, and often funny. The playful banter between Charlie and Liz is delightful, and the atrocious and heinous barbs that spew from Ellie's mouth are shocking but wickedly humorous.
All five members of the cast are outstanding and well-suited for their roles, but between their meatier material and their solid performances, Newman, Barlow, and Weaver stand out. Newman is absolutely vicious in her role as a terrible teen, but there are moments in which it's clear that there's more to Ellie than her bitchy veneer will show. Underneath it all, there is a sympathetic human being in there. The beautiful Erin Barlow is almost unrecognizable as the plain Liz. As Charlie's only friend, there's a tenderness in how she treats him, though she's not afraid to call him out when necessary and is quick to point out how difficult it is for her to see him slowly kill himself, just as her brother did.
But the real star of the show is Weaver. Weaver's Charlie is entirely realistic and believable, and the fat suit is a small piece of that. It's Weaver's acting choices-the shallow, labored, wheezy line delivery-that makes Charlie come to life. Every time he struggles to get off the couch or fights to walk the few feet to the bathroom, you feel for him and his predicament. Weaver's also able to make sense of Charlie's paradoxical desire for death and his need to connect with those around him. It seems as if the span of time we see in the play is Charlie's final attempt to gain some closure before he dies.
Though Hunter's writing does have a few flaws, a chick and a dude's production of The Whale is fantastically acted and proves that this relatively new Austin-based theater company is on par with some of their bigger, more established peers.
Late in the show, Charlie exclaims, "People are amazing." So is this show.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
THE WHALE, produced by a chick and a dude productions, plays the Hyde Park Theatre at 511 W 43rd St, Austin 78751 now thru March 15th. Performances are Thurs - Sat at 8pm and Sunday 3/9 at 5pm. Tickets are $10-$30. For tickets and information, please visit http://achickandadude.squarespace.com/