The Whale

By Samuel D. Hunter 
Directed by Davis McCallum
Featuring Shuler Hensley, Tasha Lawrence
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
November 5, 2012 (opening) — December 15, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 13, 2012

Schuler Hensley. Image by Joan Marcus.
Schuler Hensley. Image by Joan Marcus.

After a distant viewing and an intervening month of daily performances in other venues around town, I remain haunted by Samuel Hunter‘s provocative, engaging, disturbing, hopeful The Whale, wrapping up its extended run at Playwrights Horizon‘s Peter Jay Sharp Theater this weekend. I was first exposed to this script during the summer of 2010 at PlayPenn, the Philadelphia-based play development conference. The story haunted me then, in street clothes and without fat suits, evoking a world in the words and the acting. Now two years later, after several productions in other parts of the country, the play arrives in New York City. In this deathbed play with obesity, fat jokes, internet porn, homosexuality, and a traveling Mormon, we find love and redemption, faith and secular hope. And a great deal of theatrical pleasure.

Charlie (Shuler Hensley) was once married to Mary (Tasha Lawrence) for a few years, with whom he had now adolescent child Ellie (Reyna de Courcy). Fifteen years or so before the play opens, Charlie fell in love with his student Allen, who encounters a crisis of his Mormon faith and kills himself through starvation. Fifteen years later, when the play begins, Charlie has put on 400 pounds of extra weight, is housebound, and dying of respiratory failure. A Mormon on his mission, Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), comes knocking on Charlie’s door, is not quite who he reports to be, yet comes to his own gentle epiphany. Ellie comes to visit Charlie first as a ruse to obtain some cash, yet returns for help with essays and, despite herself, for the love she feels from Charlie. Nurse friend Liz (Rebecca Henderson), is still angry over her brother Allen’s death yet seems to care for Allen’s partner Charlie with co-dependent love, feeding him junk food while measuring his blood pressure.

While we have the monstrous bulk of Charlie’s wheezing, almost immobile presence in the middle of the stage, this play is about his hope for those around him, his love the world and his students, the possibilities for the people whose lives Charlie touches. In person. In memory. In internet tutoring sessions. This play is about the others who circle around him and the possibilities they allow themselves in their lives.

Charlie says to Liz at one point: “Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?” And that is as sweet a message as any with which to leave us, in this surprising and layered play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 11, 2012)

And in today’s New York Times ArtsBeat blog, a fragment of this masterful performance — Shuler Hensley showing us, in one, looking directly into the camera, without the outsized fat suit, the core of his artistry. Actor, words, theatre magic.

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