Theater should surprise, delight, frighten, and, at its best, make us think. “The Whale,” a new play by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Connecticut Critics Prize winner David McCallum, that takes place in Idaho, brings out many of these features. McCallum directed two of my favorite plays last season: “Water by the Spoonful” and the musical “February House.”
In “The Whale,’ on Mimi Lien's cramped, messy living room set, lit lightly in peach tones by Jane Cox, we first see Charlie. Portrayed with sweet intelligence by Shuler Hensley, in a fat suit meant to be 600 pounds, his humongous body fills the sagging sofa and dominates all around him. You can almost smell the old food containers and empty cans of soda piled on tables; books erratically sit on shelves, while Charlie, an English teacher, sips liquid from a giant plastic container and talks to his students, whom he tutors by phone and computer. It is truly painful to see him lurch from a sitting position to grab a walker.
We find out from Liz, the friend and nurse, who takes care of him, well-played by Cassie Beck, that this humorous, perspiring, wheezing, yet optimistic human blob, is dying. Fourteen years before, he left his wife, Mary, Tasha Lawrence, and 2 year old daughter, Ellie, for a man named Allan. Their love affair was thwarted by Allan's return to the Mormon Church and his subsequent tragic mysterious death. Although Liz begs him, Charlie refuses to go to the hospital; all along, she thinks he has no money, but he has amassed a large sum to give to his daughter, he does not know.
Their reunion is fraught with disgust. Ellie, played with determination by Reyna De Courcy, has been suspended from high school and is flunking all her courses. She hates everyone and everything and is bored by everything—shades of Chekhov! Her father insists on paying her to work on her essays and tries to encourage her. Ellie is so off-putting that nothing seems to move her; even her mother, believes she is evil. But until the sad end, Charlie has faith that she will succeed.
The fifth character here is Elder Thomas, a nineteen year old Mormon, Cory Michael Smith, who knocks on the door without warning and tries to help Charlie. It seems that he has problems of his own.
Also a surprise: Liz is Allan's sister!
Apt references to Jonah and Herman Melville's “Moby Dick,” are sprinkled throughout “The Whale,” which will play only through December 2 at Playwright's Horizons.