Monday, March 4, 2013

"The Whale": The Power of Empathy

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.

Ellie's Monologue

In this monologue from Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, Ellie (played by actor Helen Sadler) reveals her feelings about the story and characters in Moby Dick.

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.

Haven’t Heard of Samuel Hunter Yet? You Will.

by Skyler Gray

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter.  Photo by John Baker.
Samuel D. Hunter has quickly established himself as one of the hottest young playwrights in the country. His friendly smile and warm demeanor belie the quiet brilliance behind the flashing round spectacles he wears.

South Coast Repertory introduced playgoers to Hunter at the 2012 Pacific Playwrights Festival with a reading of his new play The Few. Hunter’s plays have been performed around the nation at Playwright’s Horizons, Denver Center Theatre Company, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Clubbed Thumb.

Hunter has been making big-time news since receiving the 2011 Obie Award in playwriting for his play A Bright New Boise. Hunter grew up in small town Idaho and many of his plays are set in that rural landscape, but the themes he explores have a universal resonance. Although many of his plays are informed by this specific locale, Hunter says “the plays actually are trying to be sort of non-regional, in a way. They could be anywhere in America.”

Hunter’s work is often singled out for his detailed portrayals of the characters that inhabit these worlds. Hunter says “the baseline of a lot of my plays is the struggle for meaning and also the struggle for connection between characters.” The people in Hunter’s plays range from a former cult member who tries to reconnect with his son in a craft store to a 600-pound man trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

Hunter’s work continues to be celebrated by esteemed theaters and theatrical organizations across the country. He is the recipient of the 2012 Whiting Writers Award, 2013 Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, 2011 Sky Cooper Prize, and the 2008-2009 PONY Fellowship. Mr. Hunter is also one of the playwright fellows at Arena Stage and is a founding member of Partial Comfort.  With five active commissions, including a commission from SCR, Hunter is continuing to set the American theatre on fire.

Plays By Samuel D. Hunter:
  • A Bright New Boise (2011 Obie Award for playwriting, 2011 Drama Desk nomination for Best Play; original production by Partial Comfort Productions in New York City, second production at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company);
  • The Whale (Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory, original production at the Denver Center);
  • A Permanent Image (commissioned and produced by Boise Contemporary Theater);
  • Jack's Precious Moment (Page 73 Productions at 59E59);
  • Five Genocides (Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater);
  • Norway (Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis; Boise Contemporary Theater). 
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