San Diego, CA—If five hundred plus pound Charlie, the central character in playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s evocative play, “The Whale” now in a captivating and riveting production at Cygnet Theatre, ever made it into my Weight Watchers Class, he would be flooded with advice about how to get rid of those unwanted pounds. But really, he’s not interested. And even if he were interested, seriously, how would he get there? He never leaves his apartment.
Charlie (Andrew Oswald) can barely move himself off his living sofa to his walker, or shift his body from one position to another without straining let alone get into a car. He is literally eating himself to death. That’s his death wish and those around him, while cautioning him that he will die if he continues on this path, continue to contribute to his obesity.
His best friend/nurse/ caregiver -sort of- Liz (Judy Bauerlein) pays his bills, does his grocery shopping and pulls out buckets of KFC- and double sub sandwiches, donuts and the like while taking his blood pressure that reads like 238/134. Red flag? Yup, but Charlie seems to think that that’s par for the course for him.
He has a sedentary job. He’s hooked up to his computer and is an on line writing teacher, a job he cherishes. He gives out on line assignments, talks into his small microphone while reading portions of essays out loud and then offers corrections. There is no physical involvement and no strain, which is a good thing in a way, because he has congestive heart failure, and breathing is difficult at best. Liz reassures him of this every time she listens to his heart through her stethoscope.
But there’s more to know about Charlie than what we see. We can’t avoid looking at the bulk anchored deeply on the middle pillow of his sofa, but Charlie is a complicated yet compassionate fellow and that’s what makes his story so devastatingly sad and Charlie a compelling yet tragic guy.
He was once married to Mary (Melissa Fernandes) and together they have a beautiful and bright, but rebellious and oft times dangerously revengeful seventeen year old. Ellie (Erin McIntosh) has lived with her mother since she was two. Charlie and Alan, Mormon and former older student of his had a homosexual relationship until Alan, on a reverse path from Charlie, just stopped eating.
After Alan’s father, also a member of the Church invited him to attend a service, in which he was to deliver the sermon, Alan lost his desire to live. “He came home afterward, and was just-hollow. It took him over- he just stopped everything.”
Alan was Liz’s brother, who in a past life went on missions for the church, but turned away from it when his parents abandoned him because he refused to marry a woman chosen by them. They all lived in Moscow, Idaho.
In a strange twist of irony, Charlie was a big fan of Melville’s “Moby Dick”. In fact he wrote a paper on the characters and likened his story to those of the characters in the book. He quoted it often and had a paper he had written about it read to him on occasions he thought he was suffering heart failure.
Just hearing parts of the story seemed to calm his nerves and put him at ease. “In the first part of the book, the author, calling himself Ishmael, is in a small sea-side town. He is sharing a bed with a man called Queequed”.
Charlie has a big heart, failing as it is, but really never has a bad word for anyone. But more than anything, Charlie’s goal is to establish a relationship with his estranged daughter in the hopes he would leave her with some cash, good memories, and especially he wanted to do something positive for her before he died.
As an audience we watch Charlie’s last days unfold over the course of a week, indicated by overhead projections shown on the cut away opening of Charlie’s detailed looking apartment (Sean Fanning). Helping to set the stage picture, at the end of each scene and blackout (R. Craig Wolf ‘s brilliant lighting design indicating days fading into night), a huge ocean roar is heard and felt throughout the theatre. (Melanie Chen).
All this imagery and storytelling would be naught without a top-notch cast and Hunter’s play would be just another ‘fat man’s story’. But “The Whale” is not about weight, it’s about relationships and about love, and about caring, and about family and about loss, society’s imposed imageries, dignity and faith in one’s self and finally, it’s about compassion.
Meticulously directed by Shana Wride (assisted by Phil Johnson) we first meet Charlie when he has an unwelcome visit from a young man, Elder Thomas (Craig Jorczak) a nineteen year old on a mission of spreading the word of Joseph Smith.
Jorczak, who looks and acts like he was born into this part, seems to show up at almost every and any time there is a crisis in the family dynamic, but his presence helps solve they mystery that hangs over the play like the plague. Charlie has been seeking an answer for years as to what was Alan’s father actually said in the sermon that pushed him over the top.
And in no particular order, the excellent cast from Oswald down draws us into, one might say, Moby Dick’s cavity and doesn’t spit us out until we are completely spent at plays end.
Oswald is captured in a fat suit for almost two continuous hours grabbing at his heart, eating, correcting papers and trying to make contact with his little sh** of a daughter played to perfection by Erin McIntosh. The scenes featuring her are, without exception, like watching fire on water. She has this seventeen-year old attitude nailed and Oswald’s gentle giant of a man couldn’t be more convincing as he overlooks her ‘Attitude’ and pushes her to write ‘one more essay’ in order to get her high school diploma.
Melissa Fernandes’ Mary, who comes into the play toward the end, makes her dramatic and emotionally draining entrance as she and Charlie go on about their daughter Ellie. Passions run high at this point as both parents, like it or not, want to do the best for their child. C: “I need to know I did one thing right in my life”. M: “We both did our parts. I raised her; you’re giving her the money. It’s the best we could do”.
Judy Bauerlein’s Liz shows us some spunk as she comes in and out of Charlie’s apartment and life always with a helping hand, an oversized wheel chair, a stethoscope, a double meatball sub sandwich or a family sized bucket of KFC. She also adds some so needed back end comic relief. That said, it boggled my imagination that she never called for help no matter how much he protested.
Veronica Murphy’s generic costumes are perfect and Charlie’s ‘fat suit’ comes by way of South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa where the play made its West Coast Premiere in 2013.
It would be great to conclude here by saying “All’s Well That Ends Well” but all will not end well. On the contrary, this whale of a tale that is so affecting deserves to be seen happy ending or not.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 14th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town San Diego 92110
Ticket Prices: Start at $39.00
Venue: Theatre in Old Town