Eating yourself to death. Not recommended.
Trust me, I tried. The 400-lb. life I led 9 years and 190 lbs. ago was living from the neck up. Anything else was too hard, too painful.
Because of that, watching Charlie (Michael Russotto), the hopeful 600-lb. hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s mighty play The Whale, struggle monumentally with getting up from the sofa or shuffling laboriously to the bathroom, was almost a PTSD experience. In this production at Rep Stage, under the potent and perceptive direction of Kasi Campbell), you get a visceral jolt seeing Charlie work so onerously at doing things we all probably take for granted, even something as simple as breathing.
The paradox of the morbidly obese is that while you are so obviously all body, you spent most of your time and resourcefulness ignoring that and living inside your head. That is, when you’re not apologizing for yourself incessantly, another specific of Charlie’s character that is so perfectly, horribly right that every “I’m sorry” he reflexively utters is like a fat lip to the psyche.
Charlie, a gifted online writing professor—the play draws many parallels obvious and subtle to the novel Moby Dick—cannot or will not get over grieving for the love of his life, Allan. So for 10 years, he’s chosen suicide by sustenance. His sofa—propped up by cement blocks, one of the production’s many all-too-true details—is the center of his universe. There, he teaches students from his laptop, sleeps, and eats the junk-food diet brought by his friend Liz (Megan Anderson), a nurse and champion enabler.
The thing about death by eating is that eventually it works. Not as fast as conscious starvation, the path Allan chose when he could not reconcile his life as a contented gay man with his Mormon upbringing and beliefs, but it does tend to get you that e-ticket to the morgue if you don’t get medical intervention.
Charlie has no plans to save himself. In acute congestive heart failure, Charlie does not have much time and wants to spend it with his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Jenna Rossman), a barb-tongued medusa-in-the-making whose scattershot cruelties take your breath away.
Ellie calls her father “disgusting” (and really, you are kinda glad there isn’t a smell-scape for the play, since hygiene can be an issue for the super morbidly obese, not to mention the junk food detritus clogging up the kitchen) and hurls other fat invectives at him while posting pictures of his bulk on the Internet.
Yet, her bile and volcanic anger bounce off his carefully accreted hide. For you see, Charlie thinks Ellie is the one good thing he accomplished in his life and he demands that she see this greatness in herself. As with his students, he strives to bring out the best in people. In Liz, he brings out her tender bossiness, in ex-wife Mary (Susan Rome), the softness and surety of the person she was before life wore her down. He even sparks a precarious revelation out of a conflicted Mormon, Elder Thomas (Wood Van Meter, who brings unexpected shadings to the stock character).
And that’s the astonishing thing about The Whale, which is as much about transformation as it is about empathy. Like Moby Dick, its main character is something that by all physical appearances is a monster—deprived of emotions or feeling. But the play and the novel demand that we look past the blubber, as it were, and into the souls of these creatures. When we see ourselves in Charlie or the great white whale of Melville’s imagination, we discover depths we never knew possible.
To bring out the miracle in The Whale requires concerted effort and Campbell masterfully syncs all the elements into a splendid whole. James Fouchard’s set at once captures the limited world of the housebound while suggesting the expansive possibilities of a sailing ship. Neil McFadden’s aquatic sound design is evocative and expertly calibrated. Jessica Welch’s costumes have a beautifully broken-in familiarity that is true to each character.
Campbell is known as an actor’s director and like Charlie, she brings out the best in the cast. Russotto wears the layers of padding required to play a person of Charlie’s size with such seeming naturalness you’d swear he was born to it. Russotto allows you to feast your eyes on the sometimes hard-to-bear truths of being a 600-lb. man, but never for one moment is it a reality television freak show. You take to Charlie as others have done—for his gentleness, his passionate intellect, his persistent positivity.
Jan 14 – Feb 1
Rep Stage at
Horowitz Visual & Performing Arts Center
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: Wednesdays and Thursdays are PWYC
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 443 518-1500
It is rare to see such a nuanced and robust portrayal of a fat person anywhere in pop culture. Watching The Whale makes you think how many other Charlies are out there, living out of their heads in their living rooms and capable of so much wonder and magnificence?
The irony is that the opportunity for fat people to see positive, fulsome images of themselves, as with The Whale, is mostly one denied to them because of their size. Unless the seats are armless and rows accessible, theater is out of reach for the Charlies of the world.
The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter . Directed by Kasi Campbell . Featuring Michael Russotto, Megan Anderson, Wood Van Meter, Jenna Rossman and Susan Rome . Scenic design: James Fouchardt . Lighting design: Jay Herzon . Sound design: Neil McFadden . Costume design: Jessica Welch . Costume craftsperson: Wil Crowther . Properties design: Dre Moore . Dramaturg: Lisa A Wilde . Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.