The new recipe from American drama seems to be old fashioned poetic realism spiced with a pinch of the absurd topped off with a sprinkling of the Gothic. Stephen Karam's SONS OF THE PROPHET begins with a bizaarre car accident involving a high school mascot, Lisa D'Amour's fine DETROIT moved toward a strange bacchanale that ended with a conflagration. Now Samuel D. Hunter's touching new work, THE WHALE gives us the final days of a 600 pound man who has literally eaten himself to death.
Charlie was always overweight, but he began killing himself with food after his lover, Alan, wasted away. Alan didn't have any terminal physical ailment. He died of not being able to reconcile his love for another man with his Mormon faith. Charlie has his own problems with guilt. He is constantly saying "I'm sorry" to everyone who comes into his squalid apartment. He is cared for by Alan's sister, who is trying to keep something of her brother alive through Charlie. Though dying of congestive heart failure, Charlie won't go to the hospital. He doesn't have health insurance because he has saved every penny for his teenage daughter, Ellie, who has her own spiritual crisis. Ellis is in a state of despair and her bitterness has left her totally isolated. Her principal means of communication is a blog on which she viciously derides everyone she knows. Her mother has pretty much given up on her. Charlie, the eternal optimist through all his grief and self-destruction sees something positive and special about his daughter. Into this mix comes a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary proselytizing on his own because he assaulted his missionary partner for lack of faith. "Elder Thomas", as he calls himself, is determined to save Charlie's soul, but he needs a bit of saving himself.
The conflicts and collisions of this bunch of sweet lost souls makes for a funny, moving two hours. There's also poetry in Hunter's play. Charlie makes money by doing online tutoring of college students who have writing problems. He gets fired by urging them to write what they honestly feel. From the papers he reads, they honestly feel as lost as the characters we see on stage. Charlie's favorite paper, one he knows by heart, is one his daughter wrote when she was in eight grade. The topic is MOBY-DICK and, though Ellie thought Ahab was a pirate, she understood the love between Ishmael and Queequeg, the pain Ahab felt and the futility of his quest. The story of Jonah and the whale also figures in the play. Melville's story is one of a universe in which God, if He exists, is indifferent to human suffering. Jonah's story is one of God's power and the necessity of faith but, in the context of THE WHALE, the story breaks a man's spirit.
There's a lot going on in THE WHALE. I was interested to see that, when the play ended, many in the audience at Playwrights Horizons didn't want to get up and leave. There was much to absorb emotionally and intellectually.
I saw a preview, but I can't imagine a better performance. Shuler Hensley must have been boiling in that giant fat suit, but one believes that is his body, and one sees all the facets of the complicated human being encased in all that blubber. He's physically repulsive, but a sweet, lovely spirit. The wonderful young actor Cory Michael Smith makes us see Elder Thomas's desire to be a good person and a true believer. Cassie Beck makes us see Liz's jealous protectiveness toward her brother's lover and her devotion to him. Reyna de Courcy relies a bit too much on grimacing to convey Charlie's daughter's bitterness and still needs to find more variety in Ellie's character. Tasha Lawrence makes them most of her brief appearance as Charlie's ex-wife. Director Davis McCallum was wise to emphasize the realistic aspects of the play and let the poetry shine through on its own.
If anyone doubts that really strong plays are being written by American playwrights, catch the two plays now running at Playwrights Horizons.
THE WHALE. Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater. October 20, 2012.