“The Whale,” Saved by Actors

By Samantha Pickette
BU News Service

This “Whale” watch is not for the faint of heart.

Playing at the Boston Center For The Arts until April 12th, “The Whale” tells the story of Charlie (John Kuntz), a morbidly obese man who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Josephine Elwood), before he succumbs to untreated heart failure.  The five principal actors perform brilliantly, especially in the case of Kuntz and Georgia Lyman, who plays Charlie’s wisecracking friend and caregiver, Liz.  However, the play itself falls short.  Playwright Samuel D. Hunter underestimates the audience’s ability to empathize with 600-pound Charlie’s physical and emotional suffering, relying instead on overplayed metaphors and melodramatic dialogue to ignite the audience’s compassion.  Consequently, what could have been a dramatic and thought-provoking character study is instead gratuitously depressing and ultimately an unsatisfying experience.

Charlie’s most interesting quality is that as a character, he is full of contradictions.  On the one hand, he hardly moves.  He spends most of the two hours of the play sitting in one spot of his stained sofa, eating, sleeping, and teaching online writing courses without so much as changing position.  Yet, John Kuntz plays Charlie with such psychological force that every wheeze and grimace that Charlie makes from that couch is dynamic — Charlie is fascinating for the audience to look at, not just because of his size, but because of Kuntz’s ability to make Charlie’s physical stillness into an expressive, emotive struggle.

Still, at times Hunter’s writing reduces Charlie to a Christ-like martyr.  Charlie, who begins every sentence with an apology, suffers greatly for his “sins” — namely, deciding to leave his wife and take a male lover — but the suffering is wholly self-imposed.  He refuses to get medical care, instead depending on the help of Liz, a caretaker who provides him with comic relief, guilt, and trashy T.V., not to mention the very food that is slowly killing him.

Charlie seems blissfully unconcerned with the prospect of his own demise and lives his life hiding behind optimistic denial.  He instructs his writing students with such obtuse enthusiasm that he hardly seems to notice their indifference. His own inability to see the truth reduces the effect of his “brave” decision at the end of the play to turn on the webcam and allow his students to actually see him.

Furthermore, his blindness when it comes to his daughter, Ellie, is more infuriating than it is endearing.  While he is describing her as “amazing” and admiring her “strong personality,” she is slipping him sleeping pills and posting hateful photos of him on her blog.  Actress Josephine Elwood makes Ellie’s divisiveness almost too convincing.  Charlie dies content during what he thinks is their first real moment of bonding.  He seems convinced that Ellie has undergone a transformation, but I was left wondering whether the brief emotional awakening that Ellie experienced during Charlie’s death was even genuine.  Their story ends before this resolution is fully developed.

The play falls apart because of weaknesses in its own plot.  The death of Charlie’s partner, Alan, lies at the center of everything that happens on stage.  The animosity between Charlie, his ex-wife Mary (Maureen Keiller), and Ellie, exists because Charlie abandoned his family to be with Alan.  Liz’s distrust of Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor) and her hatred of the Mormon faith are the result of how the church supposedly traumatized Alan.  And, Charlie’s obesity stems from his grief over Alan’s death; Charlie’s eating is juxtaposed with Alan’s wasting away.

The climax of the play, then, should be when Elder Thomas reveals what actually happened to Alan at church — I assumed that Alan was forced to endure some extreme form of ostracism or a sacrificial ritual.  Instead, we find out that what “traumatized” Alan was a sermon about the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, an explanation that was far too anti-climactic to be satisfying.

The reference to Jonah and the Whale was just one of too many whale references made throughout the play.  From the scene transitions (dark blue lights accompanied by the sound of ocean waves, the creaking of a wooden ship, and whale sounds) to the numerous nods to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Hunter beats the “whale” metaphor to death.

Even so, Ellie’s eighth grade essay about Moby-Dick is a strong plot device.  The fact that Charlie has held onto it demonstrates his love for his daughter, and the fact that Ellie was able to write about the whale with genuine sympathy shows that she is perhaps not as frigid as she makes herself out to be.  But, the constant repetition of the same line of Ellie’s essay — “The author [Melville] was trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while” — was patronizing at worst, unnecessary at best, and made me wish that Hunter could have had Melville’s same sense of courtesy.

“The Whale” may not be the next “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”, but it has received considerable praise and accolades.  It won the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Play, and perhaps deservingly so.  The actors in this production, lead by John Kuntz, make the most of the story. What the play lacks in plot and character development it makes up for in creativity and heart.  You may not leave the theater “spouting” praise, but “The Whale” is definitely worth watching once.

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