Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale is an uneasy spectator experience: two hours without intermission in the presence of a 600-pound character, Charlie, who’s been eating himself to death in the aftermath of his lover, Alan, having starved himself to death. Charlie (Andrew Oswald) is a sympathetic but devastating figure, marking the days he has left on this unkind mortal coil, fighting to breathe but more so fighting to forge one enduring bond with his piss ant of a teenage daughter, Ellie (Erin McIntosh). There’s shock value to the sight of this desperate, cerebral behemoth, but that feeling effectively wears off in Hunter’s highly literate drama, now on stage at Cygnet Theatre, and the focus becomes not on the body but on the soul.
This emotionally taxing play strains for metaphors (right down to its title) as surely as Charlie strains to move across the room, leaning on his walker. And the snarky correspondences from the college students he teaches online are formula teenspeak. It’s the intense character relationships that elevate The Whale, and not merely the obvious Charlie/Ellie dynamic. Charlie’s tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside nurse-friend, Liz (Judy Bauerlein) feeds him fast food at the same time she’s trying to keep him alive. Trying to save Charlie, too, but in a spiritual way, is a nobly-intentioned but mixed up young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (Craig Jorczak). What, after all, is salvation? It’s one of many questions The Whale proffers.
There’s no question that director Shana Wride’s star is up to the physical demands of the role. Oswald bears the burden of the fat suit well, and his underplaying approach gives Charlie considerable dignity. (Thankfully the audience is spared any graphic eating sequences.) Oswald’s scenes with Bauerlein ring truest, manifesting the affection between Charlie and Liz, good friends facing the inevitable.
The Whale is an ominous affair rife with moments when you won’t know whether to laugh or take an anxious breath. While its psychological wanderings and literary allusions complicate matters, it’s really a simple tale if you let it be, one of connections lost and found to oneself and to others.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.