BWW Review: Knight's Performance Elevates Verge Theater Company's THE WHALE

BWW Review: Knight's Performance Elevates Verge Theater Company's THE WHALE
Shawn Knight and CJ Tucker in Verge Theater Company's The Whale.
- photos by Eric Ventress

Shawn Knight's stunning and transformative performance as the 600-pound protagonist in Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale - now onstage in a new production from Verge Theater Company to launch its third season - elevates the script beyond its stage-bound limitations, guaranteeing two hours of reflection and thought while the story is told onstage and engendering far more time given over to the consideration of the script's themes once the show's final curtain has fallen.

Director Jaclynn Jutting keeps the action flowing at a relatively good pace in the intermission-free, near to two hours, that follows our first introduction to Knight's character of Charlie, a morbidly obese gay man held hostage by his fears and the guilt that envelops him, cloaking his very existence in a fetid stench that renders him disgusting to the rest of the world. Charlie's insular world comes to life thanks in large part to the cadre of talented actors - Alex Drinnen, Nettie Kraft, CJ Tucker and Madeleine Yeary - assembled by Jutting to give Knight capable and impressive support throughout Hunter's relentlessly downbeat play which is peopled by characters who are, even at their best, difficult to like and their actions hard to comprehend.

BWW Review: Knight's Performance Elevates Verge Theater Company's THE WHALE
Nettie Kraft and Shawn Knight

You may feel sorry for Charlie, given the life he leads, and in the way he is written by Hunter your pity might assuage any guilt you feel toward genuine human beings who find themselves in a similar predicament. But it is, quite frankly, the way that he is written by Hunter that makes him appear inauthentic and like some literary device. Like a car wreck encountered on the interstate during your drive home, it's hard to look at Charlie, but perhaps even more difficult to turn away from as you learn about the circumstances that have led him to his horrifying present.

Enabled by his only friend Liz (played with understated realness by the seemingly world-worn and weary Kraft, who breathes authenticity into every line), who supplies him with buckets of fried chicken and meatball sandwiches gooey with extra cheese even as he battles to stay alive, Charlie's reclusiveness may hit disturbingly close to home, as he struggles to come to grips with life events that have essentially stolen life from him.

BWW Review: Knight's Performance Elevates Verge Theater Company's THE WHALE
Madeleine Yeary and Alex Drinnen

Into Charlie's dismal and cluttered apartment (although quite spacious - despite Jen Kazmierczak's well-designed set, imagine how much more oppressive a more intimate and somehow more squalid staging area would have rendered the play's impact on its audience) comes a young and good-looking Mormon missionary (Drinnen, in an artfully crafted performance that is particularly impressive when considered in the context of his scenes with Knight and Kraft) who enters to find him masturbating to online porn, his climax very nearly killing Charlie in its unsettling aftermath, giving credence to the notion of "the little death" that signifies sexual release every time it happens.

Embarrassed and discomfited by what he has witnessed and more than a little put off by the fact that Charlie seems teetering on the precipice of death, Elder Thomas is drawn into Charlie's world, hoping against hope that his efforts can help save the man's life or to at least keep the Grim Reaper away from the door for a little while longer.

BWW Review: Knight's Performance Elevates Verge Theater Company's THE WHALE
Madeleine Yeary and Shawn Knight

Charlie is also visited by his daughter Ellie, an angry teenager with a sharp ax to grind (the two haven't seen each other in 15 years, when the two-year-old Ellie was placed in the custody of her mother Mary upon her divorce from Charlie), played by Yeary with an intensity that rings true as she and her estranged father attempt a rapprochement before he keels over and she collects the $129,000 he's squirreled away for her. Ellie's a difficult child, to be sure, and her lack of a relationship with her father might seem more desired than the constant battle of wits she engages in with Mary, played convincingly by CJ Tucker, who once again takes on the type of role that seems written expressly for her estimable talents.

But it is Knight who transcends the script, who goes beyond the fiction of the story crafted by Hunter, to create a character so compelling that you might overlook his obvious shortcomings, moving beyond the overbearing sense of ennui that permeates the proceedings. Knight's Charlie seems flesh and blood - all 600 pounds of him is created by a fat suit of epic proportions that makes the handsome actor look for all the world like the beached whale that every metaphor employed by the playwright insists that he is. But going beyond just the physical component of his performance, Knight taps into Charlie's emotional core to give a performance that is at once off-putting yet eminently watchable. You can't just drive past the specter of Charlie the physical behemoth without thinking about what you have just witnessed.

BWW Review: Knight's Performance Elevates Verge Theater Company's THE WHALE
Alex Drinnen and Shawn Knight

Knight's portrayal of Charlie is heart-wrenching, requiring the actor to lay bare his very soul, to give over his very being to a character so caught up in introspection and dazed reflection that he becomes thoughtlessly self-centered. Charlie constantly mutters "I'm sorry" and does nothing to improve his lot in life in some metaphorical orgy of self-recrimination and self-flagellation that fairly screams "look at me."

In his heavy-handed way, Hunter shortchanges the audience by insisting they view Charlie as one of society's rejects. While he sometimes interjects a grace note here or there to suggest there's more than meets the eye to the man, he more often than not betrays his own prejudices. So how does one explain the fact that some audience members are so profoundly moved by the characters and the story offered up in The Whale?

Morbidly obese gay men are seldom the central character in any fictionalized account of the vagaries of life lived in a conservative community - whether it's set in Idaho, as The Whale is, or even if it's closer to home, maybe in Tennessee. Could the story have been even more potent had Charlie been drawn as just an overweight man who left his wife and daughter to create a home with another man? Possibly, but it would have denied Hunter the chance to drive home his literary - and far too literal - inclinations.

The Whale. By Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Jaclynn Jutting. Presented by Verge Theater Company at Belmont Black Box Theatre, Nashville. Running June 10, 11 and 14. For more information, go to www.vergetheaterco.org. Running time: 2 hours (no intermission).

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