BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama


The Denver Center Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of THE WHALE by Samuel D. Hunter, playing now through February 19th. THE WHALE is the story of Charlie, a gay man in his 40s who has grown dangerously obese since his partner’s death. Charlie hasn’t seen his ex-wife or daughter in over 15 years and now, in failing health, Charlie is an enormous walking contradiction. Fending off the assistance of friends, hospitals, and the church, he tries desperately to find redemption by reconnecting with his estranged daughter before it’s too late.

This play is a painfully tender and realistic story that has refreshing grit to it and is fearless in its exploration of abject depression, body image as it relates to emotions, familial estrangements, religion, and death. That’s a lot to process in one show, and yet the story manages to be serious, funny, bold, sad, and heartfelt all at the same time. The plot presents an interesting debate when it comes to big questions about the role of family, friends, and religion, and who should one turn to in his last days, if anyone?

Charlie ultimately keeps everyone at arm’s length – the people in his life orbit around his enormous body, but he never lets them get close enough to collide with his thick, but fragile, exterior. Irony and contradiction are the centerpieces of Charlie’s life. While he demands self-exploration from his online students and daughter ("This book made me think about my own life"), he finds it impossible to turn the magnifying glass on himself and take a look at the deep roots of his profound misery and grief. Dehumanizing references to "Moby Dick” haunt Charlie wherever he goes, an oppressive reminder that he is a less-than-human “other” in society’s eyes. Here, too, is another contradiction in Charlie’s existence – whales are highly symbolic in many coastal cultures, simultaneously representing power and rebirth, destruction and death. Swimming whales are a sign of good luck and prosperity. Beached whales symbolize ill tidings, disease, and decay. Charlie is in a state of obvious emotional and physical disintegration – the social and psychic glue that keeps people swimming is weakening for him.

I also find it interesting that the mysterious sermon that was the basis for Charlie’s partner’s decision to give up and wither away was not a hellfire and brimstone speech, but actually something more mundane. This is a beautiful illustration of the idea that god is in the small details – and so is the devil. We always think it is the major events in life that have a lasting impact, when it’s really the seemingly forgettable minutia that tends to linger and fester.

Now, there was a debate going on (in my head) about intermission. I found the timing of it odd, because the incredible cast was building momentum (why stop? don’t stop!) On the other hand, after witnessing Act II, I can say absolutely NO steam was lost in the second half of this compelling show. Tom Alan Robbins, encased in Charlie’s fat suit skin, probably needs a moment at halftime to cool down and rehydrate, which brings me to what could be considered one of the top stage performances the Denver Center has ever showcased. Simply put, the sheer size of Charlie is shocking (600 pounds). Tom Alan Robbins (who does not weigh anywhere near 600 pounds) has his work cut out for him, and offers a truly superb self-loathing and regret-filled performance. Now don’t get the idea that Hunter’s play is about the evils of food and America’s questionable consumption practices. No. This story is about one man’s desperate, last-ditch grasping for redemption, and Robbins’ embodied portrayal in this regard is both fascinating and difficult to watch. Liz (played ably by Angela Reed), a nurse by profession and friend to Charlie, exudes compassion and concern. Nicole Rodenburg as Charlie’s estranged teenage daughter, Ellie provides some needed humorous relief to this Heavy Drama (no pun intended) and is disturbingly accurate as a miffed teenager. Tasha Lawrence as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary is as realistic as they come. She has just one scene, but it’s memorable, trust me. Mormon Missionary Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) adds an interesting aspect to the show and is filled with humor and depth. Given the subject matter of THE WHALE and the physical stature of the main character, it’s obvious that playwright Hunter has no problem offering up complicated, contradictory, and controversial characters operating within broader cultural themes.

Aside from the solid acting, one of the most impressive elements of the show is Robbins’ fat suit. After months of research and 300 hours of labor, the team (costume designer Kevin Copenhaver, draper Louise Powers-Prues, and a squad of stitchers) transforms the lead actor into an uncomfortably obese man (the sweat pants alone are size 14X with a waist of 94"). Tom Alan Robbins wears Charlie’s 100-pound flesh suit for hours upon hours during a regular performance week. That’s acting chops, but it’s also an important reminder that so many people struggle every single day with living in their own skin; it’s not something they can just take off at the end of the day. Robbins does a fine job communicating this daily battle. Samuel D. Hunter often sets his plays in his native Idaho, but set designer Jason Simms does a nice job creating a dumpy apartment that could easily be placed on Denver’s Cap Hill. The space is functional and cramped and noisy (including an annoying clanging ceiling fan), and those extra touches of wear and tear, right down to the sweat outline of Charlie’s ample body on the couch, are a reflection of Charlie’s inner world. The special effects by lighting designer Seth Reiser and sound designer William Burns are both subtle and intense and almost become characters themselves in the foreshadowing of Charlie’s inevitable demise.

This is a deep story, as any good story should be. In folklore, the forceful exhalation through a whale’s blowhole symbolizes the freeing of one’s own creative energies. The ending crescendo of this play is so intense and moving I could feel the weight of Charlie’s struggle in my chest, the pressure building in my lungs. I held my breath for those last few moments, and then, like a great wounded whale freeing its creative essence, I blew all of the air out of my lungs along with Charlie, one last time.

This show pulls no punches. It is intense, funny, touching, and will help you turn the magnifying glass on yourself in a meaningful way. THE WHALE is blowing audiences away at the Ricketson Theatre in the Denver Center now through February 19th. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 303-893-4100 or check online at

PHOTO CREDIT:  Terry Shapiro


BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama
Tom Alan Robbins as Charlie

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama
Tom Alan Robbins (Charlie) and Angela Reed (Liz)

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama
Tom Alan Robbins (Charlie) and Cory Michael Smith (Elder Thomas)

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama
Nicole Rodenburg as Ellie

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama
Angela Reed (Liz) and Cory Michael Smith (Elder Thomas)

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama
Tom Alan Robbins (Charlie) and Tasha Lawrence (Mary)

BWW Reviews: Denver Center's THE WHALE - a Heavy, Superb Drama


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From This Author Michael Mulhern

Michael Mulhern has lived in Denver and been active in it's theater scene for over 10 years. He is originally from Wiesbaden, Germany and graduated (read more...)

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