SpeakEasy's "Whale": But Weight, There's More

Charlie (John Kuntz), "The Whale"
Photo: Craig Bailey, Perspective Photo 
All right, let’s get the more egregious puns over; as he has shown on many occasions, John Kuntz as playwright and actor is a huge talent. His current role in SpeakEasy‘s production of “The Whale”, is yet another example of just how gigantic that talent is, especially evident when portraying someone with so much personal baggage. It’s tempting to go on, perhaps endlessly puntificating, but that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. As the title above suggests, there’s more than first meets the eye in “The Whale”, the regional premiere of the successful play by Idaho-born playwright Samuel D. Hunter. The central figure of this work, (which won the 2012 Lucille Lortel Award as Best Off-Broadway Play), is the morbidly obese Charlie (Kuntz), a six-hundred pound Idaho couch potato. It seems fifteen years ago he walked out on his wife Mary (Maureen Keiller) and their then two-year-old daughter Ellie (Josephine Elwood) for another man. His nurse friend Liz (Georgia Lyman) is on hand. The other member of the cast is Elder Thomas, a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary (Ryan O’Connor) determined to save our titanic hero (from obesity perhaps and from homosexuality for sure). Suffering from CHF (Congestive Heart Failure), Charlie’s life is as much a figurative mess as his apartment is a literal one.

Charlie’s most frequent lament is “I’m sorry”, but it’s he we might be tempted to feel sorry for, once we get beyond the physical impediment of his size. Accused by others of rampant optimism in general, if not about himself, he wants desperately to connect with his daughter, to help her feel empathy, to feel anything. Hovering in the wings are the stultifying precepts of the Mormon Church toward gays, and the prose of Melville’s “Moby Dick” about another man doomed to death. Hunter has expressed elsewhere that he sees religion and art as virtually the same internalized thing. Charlie looks for meaning in his ebbing life, with considerable literary, especially Biblical, allusions. If one can’t exactly walk in another’s fat suit, she or he can surely identify with the real conflict of faith (at least in the form of organized religion) and gay integrity. Orbiting around Charlie is his rebellious daughter, her world-weary mother, a nurse with a Messiah complex, and a fundamentally naïve missionary with a complex about the Messiah, but intent on giving him hope.

The cast is terrific, led of course by Kuntz (in the “title role”?). The play is something else again. It’s a fascinating premise, often very engaging, but the plot development proceeds at a pace too languid and labored (not unlike Charlie’s breathing); it may well be that the play is too thin for such a lengthy work. As directed by David R. Gammons, the current production is thought-provoking. The technical credits, from the Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco (early landfill décor), to the Wardrobe Supervision by Gail Astrid Buckley (including the rental of the fat suit from the New York production), eerily effective Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and even more eerily significant Sound Design by David Remedios (waves, whales and wheezes), are extraordinarily contributive to Charlie’s surroundings. As Bette Davis once put it, “What a dump!” A lot of attention to detail (the mammoth size of the blood pressure cuff, or the wallpaper on his laptop with a shot of Haystack Rock on the Oregon coast, for example) helps convey just how intensely constricted Charlie’s existence is.

No one who sees this production will regret spending the time with this pathetic central character as he progresses from claustrophobic victim to eventual inspiration (at least for his daughter if not for his online students). He and we may finally find the empathy he had sought, in the words of one treasured book review of “Moby Dick” that becomes a pivotal piece: “This book made me think about my own life. This book made me think.” So should this play.

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