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Arts & Entertainment

Theater Review: The Whale

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 6

By Ben Miles

One of the world’s great literary works is “Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville. It’s a 19th Century tale about a whale. Now there’s an estimable dramatic piece, by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, that’s titled “The Whale.” It’s the story of Charlie, a 600 pound recluse (Matthew Arkin, in a most vulnerable portrayal, affectingly conveyed through 30 pounds of obesity prosthetics that add 40 inches to the actor’s waist). Charlie is desperate to end his long-lasting guilt trip by reconciling with his raging teen daughter, Ellie (Helen Sadler in a perfectly provocative performance); that is, before he succeeds at suicide via gastro-ingestion.

Both narratives – “Moby Dick” and “The Whale” – are accounts of obsession to the point of destruction. The former chronicles compulsive rage directed outward; the latter is an exploration of inner-directed anger and self obliteration.

Late last year, “The Whale” had its New York debut. Currently the show, under the keen direction of Martin Benson, is in its west coast premiere at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory,
through March 31. It is a humane examination of a circumstance that most of us would find difficult to imagine ourselves being subject to. Nevertheless, “The Whale,” through potent scripting, fine characterizations, and superb stagecraft (Scenic designer, Thomas Buderwitz; costumer, Angela Balogh Calin; lighting design, Donna and Tom Ruzika; original music/soundscape, Michael Roth; and a special shout-out to the prosthetics designer, Kevin Haney – kudos!), builds our empathy while deepening our understanding of Charlie’s fleshy plight.

Charlie – an obviously self-despising gay man, who teaches online writing courses for the state university – is not just morbidly obese and socially isolated. Because of his unseemly condition, he is also, frankly, physically repulsive, unable to provide proper hygiene for himself. Luckily for him, Charlie does have a neighborly nurse, Liz ( an earthy incarnation by Blake Lindsley) and a sister to Alan, Charlie’s deceased lover, who has taken an interest in his well being and who has come to consider herself to be his friend.

In a strange instance of self intimacy, while watching internet pornography, Charlie suffers a seizure during a climactic moment of self-gratification. Fortunately for Charlie, it is at this instant that a Mormon Missionary named Elder Thomas (a hilarious Wyatt Fenner, in a scene-snatching characterization) comes knocking on Charlie’s apartment door. It’s an awkward moment full of throbbing theatricality, to say the least.

We also get acquainted with Charlie’s erstwhile wife and the mother of Ellie, the dejected Mary (a crisply intense Jennifer Christopher). This encounter allows us to grasp the connections and broken relations that litter the lives of those on display here.

“The Whale,” like “Moby Dick,” is an allegory that allows us to consider the ratios and relationships that help to define who we are and what we become as people. Both works serve as a measure of the immensity of what it means to be human, and show how easy it is to blur our focus and misalign our priorities in life.

“The Whale” continues at South Coast Rep through March 31. The theater is located at 655 Town Center Drive, in Costa Mesa. Evening performances take place Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:45 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There is no evening performance on Sunday, March 31.) For reservations, call (714) 708-5555. For online ticketing and further information, visit