Victory Gardens Theater Harpoons A Hit With THE WHALE

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About a quarter of the way through Samuel H. Hunter’s Chicago premiere of The Whale, which opened last night at Victory Gardens Theater, one wants to place a call to Richard Simmons to do an intervention on the 600 pound protagonist, Charlie.    But as we come to quickly find out, it would have been for naught as Charlie has a death wish from the start and nothing can change his mind about his ultimate demise.

There in lies the beauty of this play, intimately directed by Joanie Schultz, which tells the story of a morbidly obese gay man who is trying to reconnect with his daughter before he dies.   And from the moment the play opens, we know Charlie’s death is imminent as his breathing so dictates.  To make a living in his condition, Charlie does on-line tutoring in expository writing for high school students, which is how Melville’s Moby Dick metaphors are initially incorporated.

Enter into this journey of demise (or redemption) a drug addict Mormon on an unsanctioned mission (played to perfection by Will Allan); Charlie’s caregiver/enabler Liz (Cheryl Graeff), who also happens to be the sister of his dead partner; a psychologically misunderstood daughter (Leah Karpel) and a boozy ex-wife (Patricia Kane) who needs closure of her own; and you are in for a two hour emotional roller coaster you will not soon forget.

Mr. Hunter’s play is quite intriguing in its own exposition.  Each of the five characters are some of the most selfish ever written for the stage and the playwright’s ability to make them not only relatable but likable is a testament to his genius.   The jumping off point is that Charlie does not want to live any longer after his partner of many years seemingly starved himself to death after a visit to his local church in their small town in Idaho (oxymoron excepted).    It is through the Mormon “missionary” that Charlie wants answers to what transpired at the service his partner attended and as the play moves forward, we see how each of these players use each other for their own redemption.  Along the way, Mr. Hunter tackles religious ideology, homophobia, addiction, mental illness and self-actualization.

In one of the best performances of the last several years, Dale Calandra is riveting in his portrayal as Charlie, both in his humor and moreover, his humanity.    Ms. Graeff brings an edgy Laurie Metcalf feel to Liz who is enables Charlie’s death in many ways.  Ms. Karpel does amazing work as Ellie, Charlie’s manipulative daughter, which is probably the most difficult role in the show next to the lead; as does About Face Theatre stalwart Patricia Kane whose anger is outweighed by regret (even if it is ultimately seen through the bottom of a glass) in her portrayal as Charlie’s ex-wife.   Then there is Mr. Allan whose comedic timing is so spot on as the likable Elder Thomas, that when he gives Charlie the reason for why things are happening to him and his dead partner in the last five minutes of the play, there is such an audible silence throughout the audience you may think he may need some protection from the crowd turning on his character.

As much as Mr. Hunter’s play embraces religious metaphors, it is never once preachy in tone.  Instead, the character’s are so well written that we get to see some of ourselves, whether we like it or not, in their own selfishness and hypocrisy.  In the end, it is Charlie’s vision that we are left with; one that is longing for answers and longing to be loved.  That, in essence, is the commonality of man (and woman) and the connectivity of human nature which is the core of this amazingly touching piece of theatre.

The Whale runs through May

5, 2013 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.  For tickets and information visit www.victorygardens.org email [email protected] or call the box office at 773.871.3000.  For calendar information visit www.TheatreInChicago.com