Review - The Whale: Lonely Room

You know those people who can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound? Charlie, the central character of Samuel D. Hunter's touching drama The Whale, isn't one of them. Charlie's dietary habits declined in a sharp downward spiral after losing his lover under tragic circumstances. He lives a reclusive existence in his Idaho home, teaching how to write basic essays from his laptop while spread across his couch, with his students able to hear his voice, but never see his face. When he last used a scale, Charlie weighed in at 550 pounds. He suspects to be close to 600 now.

Review - The Whale:  Lonely RoomCostume designer Jessica Pabst provides sufficient padding under Charlie's casual outfit, but it's the excellent, detailed performance of Shuler Hensley that really makes us see the character's weight; wheezing with nearly every breath and making every physical movement an effort. He spends most of the play center stage on the couch, but when he uses a walker to travel to the bathroom, his slow, exhausting journey is heartbreaking to watch.

Charlie nearly suffers a heart attack while masturbating to Internet porn and his life is saved with the help of a chance visit by Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) an earnest young Mormon who came to his door wishing to talk about his church. They're soon joined by Charlie's only friend, Liz (Cassie Beck, showing sincere affection through tough love), a nurse with reasons to reject any talk of the Mormon Church.

Review - The Whale:  Lonely RoomAfter taking Charlie's astronomical blood pressure, Liz flatly states that unless he goes to a hospital now, he'll be dead before the week is done. But Charlie, who is uninsured, refuses. Instead he uses what might be his final days to reunite with his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy, in a deadpan smart-ass performance that might make you think of Wednesday Addams). They haven't seen each other since she was two, when Charlie, upon figuring out his true sexuality, left his wife, Mary (Tasha Lawrence).

Ellie, who claims to be extremely intelligent, is nevertheless failing in school, and has no interest in spending time with this man she doesn't know until he offers to pay her and help her learn to write an essay. Helping her achieve the ability to communicate and express herself is the most personal and loving thing he can do with whatever time is left.

Given the circumstances, Hunter's references to Moby Dick and the Biblical Jonah do stand out as a bit heavy-handed, but the play's strength is in subtly getting the point across that though the results of Charlie's emotional problems are evident, the people surrounding him carry deeper, less visible scars. Under Davis McCallum's direction, the fine cast balances humor and drama, often getting very nasty without turning seriously ugly.

But it's Hensley's performance - one that would be convincing even if the in-shape actor wasn't wearing the fat suit - that rises above everything else, showing throughout how Charlie's heart is truly his most prominent feature.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Shuler Hensley; Bottom: Shuler Hensley and Cory Michael Smith.

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Playwright Richard Nelson first introduced audiences to the family of Apple siblings with That Hopey Changey Thing, which took place on election night 2010 and, by design, opened on that same night. He pulled the same trick last year with Sweet and Sad, which opened and was set on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Review - The Whale:  Lonely RoomAs you might have guessed, his third visit with the Apples, titled Sorry, opened this past Tuesday and, yes, was set on the day of America's most recent election. Like the previous two, Sorry is an intimate, Chekhovian-style drama centered on the mealtime conversations of a group of adults most easily identified as northeastern liberals. Nelson directs the excellent ensemble, consisting of some of New York's finest stage actors, which has remained intact for all three productions, save for Shuler Hensley, currently giving an extraordinary performance Off-Broadway in The Whale. Rather than recast, his character does not appear in this one.

It's 5am in the Rhinebeck home of schoolteacher Barbara Apple (Maryann Plunkett), who lives with her uncle Benjamin (Jon Devries), a former actor who, after a heart attack two years ago, has been losing his memory and the ability to function. She and her divorced sister Marian (Laila Robins), who moved in with them after a personal tragedy, can no longer care for Benjamin properly and have regretfully decided to move him into a care facility for his own safety.

Review - The Whale:  Lonely RoomTheir sister Jane (J. Smith-Cameron), a writer, is up from the city, pondering over the future of her on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend (the Hensley role), currently out of town on an acting gig. (No, he's not playing a 600 lb. guy Off-Broadway.) Their brother Richard (Jay O. Sanders), who announced in the first play that he had left his position as a lawyer in the State Attorney General's office to join a firm that donates heavily to the Republican Party, is now reconsidering his choice, though he retains his disappointment in the present state of the Democratic Party. ("Do we know what we're rooting for? I think we know what we're rooting against. And is that enough? Why have we become 'not them'?")

But the play is not a political round table, as discussion about specific current events is kept to a minimum. Instead, Nelson's characters bring out the mixture of personal events, large and small, that produce a family dynamic. And the superb cast does indeed produce a realistic family dynamic.

Previously intended to be a trilogy, the playwright has announced there will be at least one more visit with the Apples, on the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. I'll be sure to clear my calendar.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: J. Smith-Cameron and Laila Robins; Bottom: Jon Devries and Maryann Plunkett.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

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