What happens to a man when all his life choices go against the grain? It is hard to deal with life in a small town when you are “different” and in a small town, everyone knows enough about all their neighbors. In Samuel D. Hunter’s Chicago Premiere of “The Whale” now onstage at Victory Gardens Theater, we are in such a small town , in of all places Northern Idaho. As the play opens, we see a messy studio apartment, in which Charlie, our main character resides. Charlie is obese, weighing in at probably 600 pounds or more ( Dale Calandra, full dressed in a “fat Suit” truly pulls off this difficult role). Charley lives alone, and since his boyfriend died has been eating himself to death , so to speak. He is unable to leave his apartment so he has become an online tutor working with students who are in need of guidance. His neighbor and friend Liz ( deftly handled by Cheryl Graeff), a nurse, makes sure he is okay, but truly would prefer he get medical attention.
But there is a great deal more to Charlie, than just a fat man, despondent over his loss, waiting to die. He has a teen-age daughter, Ellie( a fierce portrayal by Leah Karpel) who has been out of his life since he left his mother, Mary ( a fine performance by Patricia Kane) for his boyfriend. There is a great deal of hate on Ellie’s part for not having a father during her growing up process. Despite what has happened to Charlie, however, he has in his own way, kept tabs on his daughter and truly wants her to have happiness in her life- to not have a hard life. He has saved money over the years, part of which came from not having health insurance, which he offers to her in a first meeting after years of not having any contact. In the Yiddish language, there is a word which people use- “Mensch”. This means someone who is real and cares and will always find the best way to make everyone better off. When Charlie tells Ellie that he has saved this money for her and apologizes for what happened, he truly shows the audience what a “Mensch” is!
The Other character in the story is Elder Thomas ( cleverly played by Will Allan) , a young Mormon from Iowa who is supposedly on his “mission” from the Mormon Church to preach “The Book Of Mormon”. As it turns out, he was not sent by the church, but for some reason is there to save Charlie. This part is a bit confusing in this almost two hour show with NO intermission. I can understand the playwright not wanting to break the momentum of the story, but I have a feeling that on matinees, with a number of “seniors” in the audience, there may be lots of people going in and out for bathroom breaks, which might do more damage to a well told story than a 10 minute intermission.
This production is smoothly directed by Joanie Schultz with great feeling and honesty. In fact, one must note that the daughter, Ellie, never loses her disdain for what Charley did to her.Often, a playwright or director will try to bring a play to an ending where all the characters turn for the better. Ellie stays mad! The technical parts of the play add to the realistic feeling that Schultz and her cast have created from Hunter’s play- Chelsea Warren’s set is one that would be just what a hermit might live in, Heather Gilbert’s lighting sets the mood for each of the scenes and Sarah Burnham has managed to find many outstanding props, including a wheelchair for “fat people”. The sound ( Thomas Dixon) had some great effects, but there were a few times that the actors did not project to the back row ( something I learned as an acting student back in the 60’s). Victory Gardens is small enough so that microphones are unneeded, but large enough for the actors to project. Remember, if they do not hear it, the story will not unfold as the playwright penned it.
While this story is one of regrets and sadness, there is some humor as well. The important part of the story is how each of us cope with loss and try to fix the things that we have “broken”. I found that each of the characters were honest portrayals of people who might live or have lived in these types of situations. Mary, of course hates Charlie for leaving them , but still managed to communicate with Charlie over the years and send him copies of Ellie’s works and writings, and although Charley fell out of love with the mother of his daughter and in love with someone else, he never stopped loving his daughter and as he became sicker and fatter, his dream was to have that reconciliation before passing. There is a special moment at the end of the play, one that I guarantee will have a tear or two rolling down your cheek (or cheeks). A moment of poetic beauty.
“The Whale” will continue at Victory Gardens Theater, located at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue ( off of Fullerton and Halsted on Lincoln- the old Biograph) through May 5th with performances as follows:
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 and 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 3 p.m.
There are student tickets as well as senior, subject to availability on discounts as well as 20 for $20 ( again subject to availability) and half price RUSH tickets on day of performances ( once again, subject to availability).
Parking is a bit of a problem in the area, but valet parking is available and there are three hour meters in the area as well as discounted garage parking just south of the theater on Lincoln ( the old Children’s Memorial garage)
Check the website for some special discussions to go along with special performances for the hearing and visual impaired-www.victorygardens.org
To see what others say, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “The Whale”