|THE CAST: Blake Lindsley, Matthew Arkin, Wyatt Fenner, Helen Sadler and Jennifer Christopher.|
by Kelly L. Miller
The first and last moments of Samuel D. Hunter’s heartbreaking, fiercely funny new play The Whale begin and end with his larger-than-life protagonist, Charlie.
As the play opens, Charlie sits on his soiled couch in a dingy, northern Idaho apartment, teaching online writing to college freshmen. Isolated, debilitated by his own body, he uses a microphone, rather than risk alienating students with a video camera. Because Charlie is morbidly obese—weighing in at nearly 600 pounds—and he has been eating himself to death for the last 15 years.
Charlie has been slowly dying from congestive heart failure for some time, but as the play begins, he suffers an intense cardiac episode, at the exact moment a young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, stops by to share the word of God. Charlie’s longtime friend and caretaker Liz begs him go to the hospital, but he refuses. Charlie doesn’t have health insurance—and he may only have a few days to live. The only thing Charlie wants to do is call his estranged daughter, Ellie.
Charlie hasn’t seen Ellie since she was two years old—but he has a father’s immediate, infinite compassion and love for her, even though she’s now grown into a cruel, acerbic 17-year-old, who’s on the verge of failing out of high school. Desperate to reconnect with her, Charlie makes Ellie a deal—and persuades her to spend the next few days with him. He’ll rewrite her failed essays if she’ll do a little free writing for him. But she has to be honest. Tell him what she really thinks.
Hunter was inspired to write The Whale after struggling to teach expository writing to apathetic freshmen at Rutgers University. He says of the experience: “I realized that I wasn't just teaching [the students] how to write good essays, I was teaching them how to think. I was teaching them to come up with original ideas, giving them the ability to have an independent thought and put that thought into words on paper. In many ways, writing a good essay is almost exactly like writing a good play—it takes original ideas, development, complication, revelation. Perhaps most importantly, it takes the ability to treat your subject with respect and a lack of judgment. It takes empathy….”
He continues: “Though the story of The Whale is fundamentally a story of a father trying to reconnect with a daughter, he’s doing so by trying to teach her how to write a good essay. But in teaching her how to write a good essay, he's trying to teach her how to think independently and how to relate to other people. Ultimately, he's teaching her how to have empathy.”
Honesty and empathy are two hallmarks of Hunter’s plays—and the characters who inhabit them. He creates everyday people who are perennial outsiders, like Charlie, living on the fringes of society. His characters hail from small-town America—usually from some part of an almost-mythic Idaho. (Hunter, himself, is from Moscow, a small university town in the northern part of the state.) They are often brutally honest people, struggling against the imperfect circumstances of their own lives and unrealized dreams. They are flawed, but funny and innately human in their imperfections. And in Hunter’s plays, over time, their lives of quiet desperation accumulate the weight of something epic.
The Whale played to great audience and critical acclaim in its first two productions—the world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre and its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons last year. Michael Feingold of the Village Voice called it “a vibrant, provocative new play,” saying “the sharp-eared skill and sensitivity with which Hunter explores his thickly layered material are matched by his fair-mindedness.”
Feingold praised the specificity of Hunter’s characterization: “Limited, angry, perplexed, divided, his characters all speak in their own rhythms, and act out of their own deep needs. Though his story’s love and grieving, and its arguments over faith, could have taken place in any decade, his telling of it lives in the specifics of our own time.”
Hunter’s own profound empathy—for his characters and their search for meaning and connection—permeates The Whale. And it informs the epic, complicated journey of his protagonist, Charlie, whom Hunter renders bravely and honestly on stage. He presents a morbidly obese father, determined to reconnect with his daughter. And then reveals this man to be an eternal optimist, incapable of believing that people are bad.
Hunter quietly, cumulatively challenges our perceptions of normal love and faith, grief and the body.
Because in the world of Samuel D. Hunter, life is never that simple.