I don’t casually give standing ovations. Generally, I remain perfectly content to clap from my seat, even if I thoroughly enjoyed the just completed work. However, upon the final blackout of The Whale, I leapt to my feet to acknowledge the brilliant and award-worthy performance of Shuler Hensley, and to an even greater degree, the tremendous script from playwright Samuel D. Hunter. The Whale -- now playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Playwrights Horizons’s smaller, second stage -- is simply one of the best new plays I’ve seen in years. Period.
I never expected to type that sentence. I was more prepared for an evening of obvious metaphor from a play that focuses on a 600 lb. shut-in and bears the title “The Whale.” Yet I have not seen such a captivating and well-constructed play in quite some time; a storyline as lean as its main character is not; and a complete set of five dynamic multi-dimensional characters with complex relationships that all work on multiple levels. Led by director Davis McCallum’s tight staging, The Whale provides a nuanced and fully-formed exploration of love, shame, regret, self-destruction, religious guilt, reconciliation, redemption, control and longing.
Hensley’s Charlie began eating himself into morbid obesity after his partner Alan passed away. While we’re never told precisely how Alan died, the implication is that he essentially starved himself to death, making Charlie’s mode of self-destruction that much more compelling. Charlie now works nonstop as an online essay tutor and never leaves his cluttered apartment in northern Idaho. Charlie knows he has little time left due to regular bouts of debilitating chest pain and his increasing difficulty breathing. His only friend Liz (Cassie Beck) – a nurse who takes care of him – berates Charlie for not letting her take him to the hospital while simultaneously enabling his slow suicide by providing him with buckets of fried chicken and meatball subs.
Charlie reaches out to his estranged 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Reyna de Courcy) who he hasn’t seen since leaving his ex-wife Mary (Tasha Lawrence) 15 years earlier to pursue his relationship with Alan. Ellie is an angry, unhappy teenager. She has no friends and is about to fail high school. She’s mean, sarcastic, dismissive, and demeaning to everyone, but especially Charlie. He offers money and help with her essays if she’ll spend some time with him. He also wants her to write … anything, as long as it’s honest.
Charlie decides to ignore the insolent girl in front of him; he only sees the good in Ellie. However, like every character in The Whale, even Charlie’s motivations are split between an innate desire to care for another and anxious self-protection. This dichotomy between the selfless and selfish is at the core of each of the play’s five characters. (The Whale contains no characters who simply and superfluously support the central drama without simultaneously possessing their own subplot and intense conflict.) In Ellie, Charlie sees a chance at redemption; a chance – as he screams near the play’s end – to have done one good thing in his life. Even while his desire to help Ellie is ultimately self-serving, his love and concern for her are wholly genuine. Charlie alone sees that Ellie’s granite-like shell is little more than a defense against a world that so far has given her a raw deal.
While the costume never lets us forget Charlie’s predicament, Hensley’s constant wheezing painfully breathes the most life into the character. In fact, it gives greater credence to the fat suit as well. Charlie is a man always trying to catch his breath. Hensley inhabits this character with so much more than simply physical characteristics.
Hensley’s Charlie is constantly sad; he hates himself for abandoning his wife and especially his child, even as he likely would make the same choice now, to follow his heart. He’s humiliated what he’s done to himself, unwilling to even let his disconnected online students see him via online video, instead just teaching as a disembodied voice. Charlie constantly apologizes to everyone and considers himself a burden. He wants to die, but not before he can be certain that he has helped his daughter. And throughout the play, I couldn’t help but feel for him and want to save him as much as I wanted to denounce him for doing this to himself. Hensley expertly expresses Charlie’s similar feelings throughout the show: self-pity consistently mixed with self-hatred.
Hensley carries the show on his shoulders, but Lawrence and Cory Michael Smith (as a young Mormon missionary) also bring wonderfully natural and complex performances to the show. My only quibbles with the entire production are Beck and de Courcy. Liz may be the most complicated and conflicted character on stage, but Beck’s performance lacked nuance, at least during the Friday 11/09 performance I attended. The acting itself was too front-and-center; almost every utterance sounds like a perfectly constructed line read rather than part of a natural dialogue.
The same is true, but to a lesser extent, with de Courcy. Ellie’s goal for every human interaction involves hurting others before they hurt her. De Courcy’s performance grows stronger as the play proceeds, but during her first scene, she does little more than play the stereotype of the angry and put-upon teen; huffing, puffing, sighing and yelling to elicit any reaction quickly. She’s lucky to have such a strong script that allows the audience to understand Ellie’s role in this story and the nature of her insecurities.
De Courcy shines twice, however: First, during a sequence where she berates Smith’s Elder Thomas in an obvious attempt to show interest in him; and second, during the play’s climax when she allows her shell to break and we finally see this terrified young woman unprotected.
All the production elements are top notch, but the scenic design fascinated me the most. All the action occurs in Charlie’s living room, a relatively straightforward set –in a box, with only the fourth wall to the audience open. There’s even a ceiling. But this box does not fill the entire stage for two curved walls outside the box create outer boundaries to each side. The stage right wall has a big hole in it, perfectly aligned with the living room window. Bright light frequently shines through the hole, which acquires more resonance as Elder Thomas discusses the story of Jonah and the whale. (“Moby Dick” also makes repeated allegorical appearances.) The entirety of Hunter’s play occurs in the belly of Jonah’s whale, but Charlie’s redemption and destruction don’t come in quite as neat a package as his biblical predecessor. I could continue for some time thinking about all the pieces of this play that work so well, both individually and as a whole. The Whale is truly a remarkable piece of theater and simply should not be missed.