A man who refuses to budge often makes for fine drama. Does the same go for a man who cannot budge because he weighs 600 pounds?
That’s the first question posed by Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Rep Stage in Columbia, MD. The answer in this case is yes, thanks to expert playwriting and a first-rate collection of Equity actors.
Hunter’s play, which won the 2013 Drama Desk Award, is an exercise in empathy. It challenges us to examine our moralistic judgments of people and their behavior. It is also openly literate, exploring such matters as what makes a good essay, a good reader, a good parent.
The drama itself engages, though, mainly due to its fresh characters and to some dark humor that bubbles up from a subtext as deep and shadowy as the mammal in its title.
Kasi Campbell is back at the directorial reins for this one, and she is successful with her unerring casting choices.
Michael Russotto dominates the stage as Charlie, the morbidly obese man who seems resigned to spending his final days confined to a couch in his rundown Idaho apartment. Russotto radiates his humanity through soulful eyes, a gentle, probing tone, and a driving insistence on pushing all those around him to be honest about their feelings.
His retreat from life into gluttony and a job as an online writing tutor is being enabled by his no-nonsense friend Liz. Liz is played with an instantly recognizable mixture of practicality, hard-headed humor and flinty disapproval by local stage favorite Megan Anderson.
Liz is as needy as Charlie in her own way, and she blames the Mormon Church for her brother’s final nudge over the precipice. So she is aghast when Charlie makes friends with a local Mormon missionary named Thomas.
Wood Van Meter is excellent as the pink-cheeked missionary, almost getting us to accept that he could have once gone through a rough patch of drug addiction. (I’d pay to see a play about his past relationship with drug dealers.)
For a while it looks like The Whale is coming down to a battle between Liz and Thomas over Charlie’s soul. But the playwright, excuse the pun, is after bigger fish.
Charlie’s greatest regret in life, you see, is how he completely lost touch with his young daughter after running away with Alan. The next thing we know, his now 17-year-old daughter Ellie is there in his apartment, berating him for every bad choice that has brought him to this point.
One of the reasons we do not feel like criticizing Charlie too much is because those on stage do a far harsher job of it. When Charlie asks what Ellie is writing in the journal he gave her, she answers: “I was writing that when you die they probably won’t be able to get your body through the door or window, so they’ll probably have to take it out in pieces.”
Jenna Rossman gets the evening’s most unsympathetic role as the brutally cruel Ellie. Yet it is also the richest role, begging us for a solution to the problem of adolescent hurt and betrayal. Rossman never pulls a punch nor hits a single false note.
The drama begins to feel a little schematic by the time the ex-wife Mary arrives on the scene, and Hunter barely touches on the issues between them. But Susan Rome makes the most of the appearance, suggesting a lifetime’s worth of bad luck and poor behavior in just a few well-chosen reactions.
The grungy apartment set by Scenic Designer James Fouchard is up to the high standards of the Rep company. Jay Herzog’s lighting design and the sometimes tricky sound design by Neil McFadden are exemplary throughout.
The Whale, here making its Baltimore/D.C. area premiere, is a heartbreaking and scattershot-brilliant little drama. It never tackles the existential ’night, Mother issues at its core, but it more than rewards with a moving and literate focus on humanity.
Running Time: About two hours, with one intermission.
The Whale by Rep Stage plays through February 1, 2015 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.