The Whale by Walking Shadow Theatre Co., performing at Mixed Blood

Zach Curtis and Zach Garcia in The Whale. Photo by Dan Norman.

Zach Curtis and Zach Garcia in The Whale. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter (Walking Shadow Theatre Co., performing at Mixed Blood Theatre, through Dec 20), is a grim little play. In it, we watch Charlie, the eponymous whale, committing suicide by gluttony. In the years since his boyfriend’s death (pneumonia complicated by anorexia), Charlie’s weight has ballooned. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to weigh myself. 500? 600?”

When we meet Charlie, he’s days away from death. Congestive heart failure. Liz, Charlie’s amazingly faithful chum, tells us so, and Liz should know; she’s a nurse. The opportunity to slow down, to go on a life-preserving diet, to choose Life, has long passed. Charlie is a dead man walking, or, to be more precise, struggling with a walker. Each mouthful of KFC, each greasy sub takes him a step closer to the grave. I can’t remember a play that so celebrates – not the right word, but I can’t think of another – death. Yikes.

Charlie is played by Zach Curtis, and Curtis, to his great credit, pulls no punches (and kudos to costumer E. Amy Hill, who has created an effective fat man costume for the large but decidedly unobese Curtis). In The Whale, Charlie sits on the sagging sofa in a crappy Idaho apartment, wheezing, sweating, periodically feeling his heart stop, trying to sleep, dealing with his online composition students with shrill impatience – “Give me something honest!” Curtis – with no doubt plenty of help from whipsmart director Amy Rummenie – provides us no grand insight. There is no Under The Volcano triumph in his obesity. No heroic raging against the dying of the light. Just pathetic death. Terrific work, but yikes once again.

Charlie is surrounded by, and I say this with great respect and admiration, nut cases. His 17 yo daughter, Ellie (played beautifully by Katie Adducci) bristles with crazed anger and overt cruelty. I found her creepy and off-putting – until Hunter turns her loose on Mormon Elder Thomas, he of the illegal and neurotic smile. The results are hootingly funny. As the fixated Thomas Zach (two Zachs!) Garcia made me giggle non-stop. Charlie’s alcoholic ex, Mary (played with great fervor by Julie Ann Nevill), prowls the stage, swigging liquor, still venting about events 17 years in the past. In all cases I wanted to hug them, then cook them a simple healthful meal. “Sit. Calm yourselves.”

And then there’s the sweet and wonderful Jennifer Maren as Liz, Charley’s friend, sister to departed boyfriend Alan. A nurse, Liz keeps our rotund hero alive. But why, one asks. Why does she enable Charlie’s self-destructiveness? Why bring him tubs of KFC, whack his back when he chokes on his hero? These questions keep popping up. But they in no way diminish Maren’s work. Rather they pull us in, and animate the play. Liz is easily the most interesting character in The Whale.

This play has proven astonishingly popular. Originating at the Denver Center, The Whale has played in quite a number of major theaters (Playwrights Horizons, South Coast, et al). Watching The Whale is like watching someone leap from the Golden Gate Bridge. You want to look away but you can’t.

So: if you like to squirm, if you have voyeuristic tendencies, The Whale is the play for you.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark will be published in March. For more information, please visit his website.


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