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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Whale — Theatre Exile

untitled (34)Charlie has been systematically destroying himself for a decade.

That’s how long it’s been since Charlie’s partner, Alan, died, also perhaps of self-neglect, or at least a stoic nod to the likelihood that life, for him, was not going to get much better, so it wasn’t worth it to fight the decline.

Sitting in his rural Idaho apartment that costs him $350 a month, Charlie reads, edits, eats, ejaculates to porn, and gives online lectures about writing to students who need to compose reports for their jobs and other courses and are not interested in creating literature.

He doesn’t let his students see him. He has disabled the camera on his computer and communicates solely by voice, in a soothing but authoritative tone that becomes softer and more personal as Samuel D. Hunter’s knowing play “The Whale.” proceeds. The confinement to oral presentation is because, whether out of vanity, shame, humility, or just good taste, Charlie considers himself unsightly. He even refers to himself as a monster.

Charlie is a whale of sorts. Cocooned in his world and doing nothing physical while eating indiscrimately, he has ballooned to between 550 and 600 pounds of too, too flabby flesh. He cannot get out of a chair without leaning on his walker, and his movements are halted (although Scott Greer, once on his feet, gave Charlie an even, regular gait in the Theatre Exile production). You can hear Charlie’s breathing and wheezing and learn that his blood pressure is always dangerously high, sometime in the 200 over 130 range. He is given to congestive heart failure, but he refuses to go to the hospital because he has no health insurance and is reluctant to mortgage the few funds he claims to have ($700 in savings) on hospital expenses. This guy is death waiting to happen.

To show how hopeless Charlie’s case is, his best friend, Alan’s sister, Liz, though monitoring his blood pressure and getting him a machine that measures perspiration and indicates when Charlie should relieve stress by meditating or thinking calmer thoughts, buys him buckets of fried chicken and meat ball hoagies to wash down with soda. What’s the use of preaching or promulgating health when Charlie’s not about to submit to kale, celery, and Brussels sprouts if all he has to do is pick up the telephone and order a pizza?

Hunter paints a sad picture of Charlie as man who is not even interested in reversing the suicide track he is undoubtedly riding.

Hunter is too good a playwright, and Scott Greer too excellent an actor, to keep “The Whale” a one-track, monochromatic piece about a man who is eating and neglecting himself to certain death.

Even before Hunter shows his hand as an author, Greer has made you like Charlie enough that you’re willing to give him sympathy even though he is an has been his own worst enemy.

NealBoxCharlie has a warm side. That, as it develops, is Hunter’s trump card, and Greer’s route to making you care about Charlie and want him to opt for living.

Even as he barks lessons to his class, or seems overbearing in commenting on or correcting an idea a pupil has e-mailed or texted to him, you sense Charlie’s gentility. This is man who prefers to be quiet and benign, who wants to consider what people say and respond thoughtfully with a cool head. We learn that Alan was the go-getter in their relationship and household and that Charlie was content to teach some courses, be a homebody, and bask in genuine mutual love that fulfilled him enough that he didn’t seek, or want, more.

Reality encroached. Charlie and Alan were a gay couple before it was entirely accepted, let alone fashionable to be one. In addition, Alan was raised as a Mormon and had to endure the rejection of his church and family, except for Liz, for his choice to be with Charlie. Charlie and Liz blame the Mormon church, and a stinging denunciation given there by Alan’s Father, for causing Alan to give up on life and wither into oblivion during the last years of his existence.

Now Charlie is a virtual shut-in, unable to do much but sit alone in a sofa for two he fills quite amply. He has become dependent on Liz for the most basic things, such as shopping, errands, and CPR. His online teaching at least keeps him employed.

Life choices and literature also encroach. Hunter, staying consistent with whale symbolism, has Charlie teaching “Moby Dick” and sets up a neat construct whereby Charlie, during bouts with choking, coughing, or losing momentary ability to breathe, is soothed to safety by hearing lines from an essay on “Moby DicK” that was written by a young person five years before “The Whale” is set. Charlie also receives two visitors who triple the number of people in his immediate social world, one, a Mormon youth on his proselytizing mission, the other, his teenage daughter, Ellie, who Charlie invites to his apartment even though parent and child have not seen each other for the fifteen years since Charlie left Ellie’s mother, Mary, to be with Alan.

The Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, brings up another whale reference, as Hunter introduces the Biblical story of Jonah to his play. Ellie proves to be a disaffected, misanthropic young woman who purports, in person and in a blog she scrupulously maintains, to hate everyone and everything in sight.

Their entry into his world complicates Charlie’s life, but it also gives Hunter a chance to explore themes beyond excessive weight, whale references, impending death, and grievances against public, and Mormon, responses to two men living in homosexual union. The need for company, and for sorting out matters ranging from acceptance to parental obligation, are two.

Charlie is nice. He can lose his temper or use his size, and eloquence, in intimidating ways when pressed, but he is a sincere advocate of people being allowed to be themselves and of keeping all matters on a civil, conversational footing that eschews argument and calls for differences to be discussed and settled peacefully.

Charlie, we learn, is full of more than food. He is fed up with people deciding what other people should do or be. He doesn’t like yelling or threatening. He has come to a point at which he challenges rules made for the sake of restricting or confining behavior and thought that doesn’t require regulation because that behavior and its results are personal and doesn’t affect or cause harm to the larger world.

The closer he gets to predictable death, Charlie wants more for life to be a blessing and a source of joy for the people he touches — students, family, and even Elder Thomas — than an ordeal that makes one feels as isolated and bitter as he has. Charlie stands for toleration, for serenity, and for cordial co-existence when one takes a path divergent, and possibly repugnant, to another. As “The Whale” goes on, he practices these more and more.

As he desecrates his corporal humanity, Charlie seeks to breed empathetic humanity in others. His message is not always well accepted. His students rebel when he turns his pedagogy from insisting on perfect sentences in organized paragraphs after stating a clear, definable premise or theme to random expression of feelings that requires little attention to grammar or diction. His daughter wants to war with him the same way she does with her mother, teachers, classmates, and everyone around her. Liz enjoys Charlie’s dependency on her and wants to fight old battles to protect him from the nasty child and Mormon acolyte who threaten to disrupt and confuse the little time Charlie has left. Elder Thomas, meanwhile, mistakes Charlie’s generosity towards him, based on pity for a fellow human who goes door to door to receive rejection and rebuke, for genuine interest in the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and thinks he may have a convert to his credit. (This, even after Liz makes clear the role she and Charlie believe the Mormon church had on Alan’s psyche and will to live.)

Rather than centering on one thing as its title and early scenes suggest, Hunter expands “The Whale” until it has the capacity to contain an insightful and thought-provoking look at one person’s world as a macrocosm for the realities, influences, obstacles, rigidness, and hardness that go on around us. Under Matthew Pfeiffer’s deft direction, with Scott Greer’s sterling and subtly evolving performance, and because of fine acting by Trevor Willam Fayle, Cameron O’Hare, Kate Czajkowski, and Amanda Grove in support, Theatre Exile’s production of “The Whale” becomes a deep exploration in the way humans regard and treat each other. Every character seems to be playing and sticking to a role, one that may be influencing his or her life negatively or painfully. So much emotion and intensity on the surface can be as consequential as the layers of fat that are about to engulf and strangle Charlie’s vital organs. As with Jonah, who makes a home and finds a kind of contentment inside the whale (or “big fish”), people have to be extracted from a rough, unnatural way of existing to something kinder, and if, possible more enlightened. That way, they can appreciate their freedom.

The essay that calms Charlie so much expresses sympathy for Moby Dick, so hunted and so hated by Captain Ahab that Ahab will risk all, including the lives of dozens of others, to destroy him, a beast that does have the consciousness to harm intentionally or obsessively.

Hunter is shrewd is the way he brings all of the thoughts “The Whale” elicits to light. He keeps his script on a realistic plane. Charlie, as a reader and a teacher, can address some Biblical subjects with Elder Thomas without turning “The Whale” into an intellectual tract. Every scene in Hunter’s play is constructed simply and smoothly, Like the best American playwrights of an earlier era, Hunter measures out all he wants “The Whale” to cover in a series of ever-revealing conversations, confrontations, and declarations. He never hammers his audience over the head with themes but presents ideas, as needed, throughout the 100-minute, intermissionless duration of his play.

Hunter never hurries a moment or admits a gratuitous statement, and Pfeiffer, as director, follows his lead. “The Whale” unfolds gracefully and gradually, giving us a chance to see relationships, savor lines, and grow to understand why Charlie is so intent on people expressing themselves honestly in a way that is not mean, accusatory, or combative for combat’s sake. Charlie admires and accepts reality even as he wends willingly, perhaps committedly, towards the ultimate escape from it. He isn’t looking for a Utopia or a world of artificial goodness. He wants people to talk, iron out differences, and if they can’t be ironed out, to have each party go his or her own way and not try to impose unwanted will on another being.

“The Whale” gets better as it proceeds because of Hunter’s smart writing and Pfeiffer’s understanding of the dynamics and flawless pacing of the script.

You’re not so much surprised as engaged and entertained in the changes that take place as characters reveal themselves and different attitudes and beliefs come to the fore. Hunter and Pfeiffer both know people, the writer to the extent he can save traits until a character has to make them known and never make it look as if he’s been withholding to spring the surprise that explains all, the director to the point that he gets milage out of each revelation by letting it come out naturally, intrinsically instead of pushing the drama of a new wrinkle or confession. Hunter lets his characters show their various facets the way people do in real life. They put their best foot forward, then let you know the baggage they carry, the angst they endure, or the prejudices and pockets of ignorance the harbor. Two of the characters in “The Whale” just have to grow up and gain more perspective to assess and filter decisions and stances.

Even with Charlie and Liz, who we see more in the middle of their relationship, Hunter is shrewd about the way he saves things that can come out more effectively after we spend some time with Charlie and Liz than if they were poured out wholesale in the beginning.

“The Whale” builds as a play the same way Charlie built in girth. Gradually, and with steady, palpable, inexorable growth.

This is a good play that gets better and more satisfying as is goes along. Pfeiffer, by keeping all on a human level, and in letting a lot unfold according to Charlie’s desire to couch anger and other strong emotions in more friendly expression, captures the right mood and tone for “The Whale.” His production for Exile brings out the best in Hunter’s play and brings it out clearly and completely.

Scott Greer plays all aspects of Charlie’s character marvelously. Even as Charlie is dying, you can see him evolving emotionally in response to his daughter and in empathy for Elder Thomas. We may only witness the last days of Charlie’s journey, but we see in that time, he knows the key to happiness is in being clear but not hurtful. It is a joy to see Greer arrive at that conclusion, put in into practice, and then state what Charlie has learned as a philosophy.

Greer also meets the difficult physical demands of his character. The shallow breaths he must stop to take, mid-lecture, in the first scene, where we hear Charlie teaching, are well acted and well timed and key you into Charlie’s dire condition. In a choking scene, Greer makes you fear for Charlie’s life. He is equally effective in scenes in which Charlie is going through the scary progression of congestive heart failure and other attacks that derive from his girth, unmannerly eating habits, and precarious state. His death scene is also an epiphany.

From the beginning, Greer radiates warmth. Even when Charlie is crusty with Liz or curt with a student who isn’t catching on or is being snarky at Charlie’s expense, Greer tempers his response with avuncular understanding.

Ellie is a real challenge. She would consider respect or filial love a sentimental weakness. She exists to hate and to point out uncomfortable truths people would sooner hide or soften.

Ellie is not beyond emotional blackmail or physical abuse. She delights in embarrassing and exposing people on her web site. She wants something concrete from Charlie, which is why she agrees to see him after 15 of her 17 years.

Greer’s Charlie responds to Ellie with patience. Sure, he registers hurt and disgust. He lectures her. He calls her on her penchant for being nasty and for using her intelligent to judge and despise instead of to flourish. He despairs that reasoning will not make a dent in Ellie’s all-encompassing contempt for fellow humans. Greer, nonetheless, is able to convey love. His Charlie admits his failures as a father, but he wants, in the end, to give and receive love, mostly give it.

Hunter works in an entire plot thread that shows how much Charlie wants to make it up to Ellie for his decade and a half of absence and neglect. The writer and Liz make it clear what Charlie is willing to sacrifice for Ellie and the prospect of a more compassionate future for her.

Greer’s calmness is the face of all that happens around him is expertly conveyed. When Charlie is alone, we see him giving Liz’s perspiration gauge a run for its money in its purpose to warn him to give his high blood pressure a break. In contemplation of his life and losses, Charlie is all stress, all melancholy regret. Greer allows Charlie to lose his composure and be sarcastic or ruthlessly honest on occasion. In general, though, Greer works to build Charlie’s plea for tolerance and civility from the beginning. His Charlie is human in that anyone’s patience can be tested or worn out, but as you think back on Greer’s performance, you see the consistent line that leads to Charlie telling all around him to stop their backbiting and recriminations and talk out their differences or agree to part without bothering one another again.

Scott Greer has provided Philadelphia audiences with years of fine, well-etched, intelligent performances. His work in “The Whale” is another in that collection.

Cameron O’Hare brings out the brattiness and braininess in Ellie. She is 17 going on 50 and relishes going for jugulars, causing hurt, and using extortion or threats you know she’s love to carry out to bully and badger people to give her what she wants or leave her alone.

For all of her of her intelligence and ability to get to the root of a situation or evil act, Ellie is not smart. She is certainly not happy. Her arrogance comes with a chip on her shoulder that would put Atlas or Sisyphus to shame. At 17, she’s as self-destructive as Charlie or Alan ever were.

Ellie can rant with interior logic. She can make people feel as small as she probably feels. But she’s a functional illiterate of sorts. She has the ability to comprehend anything, but she doesn’t apply herself. She judges her teachers, and school in general, to be a boring waste of time, but she shows no signs of being an autodidact or turning her contempt for formal education into an alternative of pursuing what she would like to read, study, or know.

Ellie is one of the lost souls in the world who hates without seeking joy beyond causing pain and discomfort to others.

Charlie sees this with dismay. Ellie, is, for all his previous lack of interest, his daughter. He has provided for her in a passive way but has never taken the time to know or guide her in a parental way, even to say, “Be a rebel, but want something positive and real for yourself.”

O’Hare plays Ellie’s bitterness expertly. You see her shrewd and vindictive nature. You watch as she watches how and when to go in for the emotional kill. There’s little to love in Ellie, but a father might not accept that even when he can’t help but realize it. The attempts both Charlie and Ellie make to forge a relationship, even one that goes against Ellie’s grain and which she makes harder to achieve, is another fine thread in Hunter’s well-woven play.

O’Hare brings Ellie and her anger to vivid life. She spews invective. She slices emotions with the efficiency of a power saw. She surrenders no quarter. O’Hare’s Ellie is as hateful as she is hating. The tribute to O’Hare, Pfeiffer, and Hunter is we find her interesting in spite of her emotional ugliness. Like Charlie, we want to reclaim and turn her rancor into something that will serve her instead of keeping her miserable.

Kate Czajkowski is realistic and natural as Liz. You don’t see a performance. You see a woman doing all she can to help a friend who, frankly. Cannot survive without her.

Liz likes her role even though she complains about it. It gives her purpose and ties her to her late brother.

Liz is pragmatic and on point with most of the things she does for Charlie. Yet she indulges him with fatty, greasy meals and sugary drinks that certainly won’t help to reduce his weight and demurs from calling an ambulance when Charlie goes through several near-fatal episodes.

Seen in the scrubs she wears to work, Liz is the American woman who has too much to juggle. Charlie is a responsibility she takes on, but one extra chore she doesn’t need. Except, perhaps, to fill a need to be important to someone or, to some extent, to control someone’s life.

Liz is Charlie’s defender, a bulwark against the encroachment of Ellie or Elder Thomas, both of whom Liz thinks add more tension to Charlie’s already stressfully compressed life.

Czjakowski’s is good, solid work, and Liz, though needy, becomes the reasonable everyday character of Hunter’s piece.

Trevor William Fayle cannily measures what he reveals about Elder Thomas. At first, he is a pure parody of the Mormon youth to go door-to-door during their missionary year.

Elder Thomas is not pleased he drew northern Idaho for his mission. He is less pleased with his mission partner, who, as Liz, who was raised as a Mormon, notes should be with him as the church, mandates missionaries travel in pairs.

Fayle will reveal that, but not before being an eager proselytizer who mistakes Charlie’s letting him speak for Charlie’s interest in the Church.

As Elder Thomas’s part unfolds, Fayle is excellent at adding the new pieces to the puzzle of his character. We learn a lot about Elder Thomas’s vocation, the streak of rebel in him, and the streak of orthodoxy that comes as a bit of a surprise from a guy who would just as soon groove over a joint each day as ring doorbells for the Mormons, even though he is a true believer who clings to the faith Liz and Alan rejected (but which got back at Alan).

In his Mormon short-sleeved white shirt, wearing a black tie and trousers, Fayle is the picture of youthful energy and eagerness. Even as some contradictory sides of Elder Thomas emerge, Fayle exudes the winning naivety of a young man who must find his way with so many things pushing and pulling at him, things he did not invite but that come with being born male and a Mormon.

Amanda Grove makes Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mother a wonderful surprise. From all you hear of her, you expect Mary to be the source of Ellie’s sarcasm, a disapproving, withholding, and conventional woman who is unable to bend to absorb new information well.

Grove appears and quite the opposite is true. Hunter has already established you can’t judge someone from his or her appearance. In Mary’s case, he establishes you can’t estimate a character based on hearsay.

Mary arrives and shows concern for her daughter, who she admits is beyond her control, and her ex, towards whom she shows affection and compassion. Far from being a harridan, Mary is even more stable and more giving than Liz. It isn’t that there’s anything special about her. She is, in real ways, the embodiment of the calm, kind, reasonable person Charlie says he wishes everyone to become.

Bravo to Hunter for saving Mary to the end. Brave to Grove for endowing her with the common sense and basic human fellowship of a competent adult in a neurotic world.

Thom Weaver’s long, narrow set must have challenged his other role as “The Whale’s” lighting designer. He did well in both constructs, making Charlie’s apartment so messy, you have to fight the urge to go up and clean it once the curtain rises. (One funny — horrifying but funny — moment comes when Liz just adds one more soda liter to a pile of trash stacked upstage center. It’s an eye opener.)

Alison Roberts’s costumes are perfect, her fat suit for Greer consisting of a 6X gray fleece crew neck sweat shirt and matching sweat pants. Liz has a fine assortment of scrubs. Ellie looks austere and menacing. Mary dresses as normally as she behaves. Elder Thomas’s wardrobe is a given, but it’s telling when Fayle loosens this tie and unbuttons his collar when sitting down to some pot.

Christopher Colucci’s music opens with the song of whales, a sound that is repeated through his excellent, evocative score and sound design for Pfeiffer’s production.

Pfeiffer orchestrates all beautifully. He deserves credit for mounting a brilliantly paced productions that made new information into revelations that enhanced the equation rather than fodder dropped to keep things interesting.

“The Whale” runs through Sunday, March 8, at Theatre Exile, 13th and Reed Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 7 p.m. Thursday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $40 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or by visiting www.theatreexile.org.

 

 

 

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