Before the lights go down in the auditorium of the original Tempe Performing Arts Center on E. 6th Street we get a chance to take in the pieces of Eric Beek’s effectively detailed Stray Cat Theatre set design. It’s the fast becoming dingy apartment that we will know as home to Charlie, an obscenely overweight man who is eating himself to death. Knowing the setup to Samuel D. Hunter’s disturbing and ultimately upsetting drama, The Whale, makes for an uneasy sense of discomfort even before the play begins. As the house lights dim we can almost see the outline of actor Damon Dering quietly make his way to the couch. There’s an immediate sense of dread as our mind races ahead of our eyes. What on earth is this man going to look like?
When the set lights rise, the reveal is startling. Charlie is a six hundred pound man whose body spills in blubbery layers all around him. He appears to have taken root in the middle of the sofa as if he’s literally growing out of the furniture and continuing to expand before us. The fact that we immediately feel sympathy for the character rather than the loathing that Charlie feels for himself is testament to Dering’s incredibly brave and affecting performance; despite the mess that he’s intentionally making of his body – and killing himself in the process – you can’t help but like Charlie as soon as you meet him.
Charlie works as an on-line tutor, correcting English lit essays. His students can’t see him; he communicates via a headset and a mic. The reason behind Charlie’s alarming situation is revealed through a conversation his nurse/caretaker Liz (Anne Marie Falvey) has with visiting Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (Austin Kiehle). Though once married, Charlie is gay and has lost his partner. “The Mormon church killed him,” Liz declares to the young man. How and why will be revealed later, but for now the tone is set. Charlie is in mourning.
In truth, The Whale explores several themes, not simply the issue of extreme obesity. Such is the power of the play that as you leave the theatre you take with you whatever topic relates to you the most, whether it’s religion, health, being a parent, tolerance, family struggles, and ultimately, honesty. Whatever strikes a personal chord is the one you will ultimately home in on, but whatever it is that hits that personal raw nerve, the end result will leave you shattered.
“How much?” asks Charlie’s perpetually angry teenage daughter Ellie (Michelle Chin) referring to her father’s weight. “I don’t know,” Charlie replies. “I haven’t been able to weigh myself in years.” His daughter challenges him to walk across the room to her without the aid of his walker. It can’t be done. He can’t push himself off the couch.
Director Ron May has cast the play well. Newcomer Austin Kiehle’s young Mormon missionary with issues of his own displays great promise as the boy struggles with his own situation. His immediate reaction as he enters the apartment and sees Charlie for the first time initially feels false, but once the rhythm of his character and his mannerisms are established and we simply get to know him better, the truth in his characterization emerges. After all, in reality, how would any of us react when confronted with such a physical image of Charlie’s for the first time?
Michelle Chin’s Ellie creates that same initial sense of overdoing the drama when we first meet her, yet, like Kiehle’s Mormon, once we get to know her, that continual display of spite and hatefulness comes across as something quite real; attitudes and extreme behavior created from a broken home under disturbing situations. Anne Marie Falvey’s Liz appears to be the one character that actually likes Charlie, though as the play continues you get the feeling that maybe Liz needs Charlie as much as Charlie needs Liz. Anne Marie plays the nurse in a heavily animated way, a reflection of someone who might have watched too much TV over the years and incorporates those same exaggerated sitcom gestures into everyday life. When she storms out of the apartment, angry that Charlie had withheld information regarding his finances from her, she appears more of a drama queen than Charlie’s angry teenage daughter.
Johanna Carlise makes her entrance in the play’s second half, and as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, who hasn’t seen Charlie in years, it’s one of the best entrances of any character seen in a play for some time. She blasts into the apartment then stands and stares for what seems like an eternity, startled in perhaps abject horror of what Charlie has made of himself. It’s the play’s shortest role yet that entrance alone makes her Mary the most affecting supporting character of all.
But this is Damon Dering’s play. Like the outstanding performance that Tom Conti delivered on Broadway as the quadriplegic in Whose Life Is It Anyway? where everything revolved around the movement of the head, Dering does the same. With the exception of the occasional arm movement, Charlie is unable to indicate anything through regular body language, it’s all with his head, facial expression and voice; it’s all that can really move, and it continually draws your attention. So effective is Dering that even when he’s asleep, immobile in his ‘fat-guy wheelchair’ where the attention should be on a conversation between the daughter and the missionary, your eyes are continually drawn back to Dering.
The final few minutes of the play will leave you devastated. Watching Dering re-enter as himself to take that final bow has the effect of a release valve. After what you’ve just witnessed, it’s a genuine relief to see the actor as himself standing there; it’s a reassurance that in reality he’s actually quite healthy and able walk.
For times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Stray Cat Theatre website.