BY TAMAR NEUMANN: The Whale is about a 600 pound man who lives alone in Idaho and the moments in his life that lead him to this particular period. Of course, it’s not just about him—it’s about questioning the role of religion in our lives (and I do mean religion and not faith) and about how we define family. Charlie (Zach Curtis), a gay, online writing instructor, has come to accept that he is dying, and, as his last move, he has decided he wants to reconnect with his acerbic daughter (Katie Adducci). Along the way we meet a Mormon missionary (Zach Garcia) and Liz (Jennifer Maren) the nurse/friend who takes care of Charlie.
The play opens with a scene of Charlie reading and responding to his students’ essays. Next we see him masturbating to gay porn. While this particular scene could emphasize his loneliness or might allow us to make judgments about Charlie, it’s a cheap way to make the audience uncomfortable and introduce the plot point that Charlie is dying. Curtis, as Charlie, has the unenviable task of playing a 600 pound man. While Curtis is not actually 600 pounds he is perfectly believable in this role. His efforts to move about the apartment and his constant wheezing help blur the lines between what he actually looks like (as it is mostly obvious that he is wearing a fat suit), and what he is supposed to look like.
Besides playing a large man who can barely move around the stage, Curtis must also be the positive force in this play. It’s odd that the character who has the most at stake in this play is the happiest character, but that’s the case. Adducci, on the other hand, has the bitterest character. Ellie, the daughter, is at one point described as “evil.” While she may just be a misguided teen, it is never fully explained why Ellie seems to hate everyone and everything. To Adducci’s credit she is able to take this character and make Ellie sympathetic, and almost likable. This contrasts with Garcia’s portrayal of Elder Thomas, who is mostly unlikable because he is played in the same fashion all Mormon missionaries are played—innocent, fresh-faced, young, and naïve. Just once it would be nice to see a Mormon missionary played with depth throughout the entire play. Being a Mormon missionary does not equal stupidity and naiveté.
While the production value of this play (produced by Walking Shadow Theatre Company in association with Mixed Blood Theatre) was solid, it’s not the directing, acting, or stagecraft of this play that will cause you to ponder The Whale long after you have seen it. Perhaps that was one of the best pieces of this production; it kept the focus on the play itself and the actors were strong enough to present the material but not overpower it. You won’t go see this play because of an amazing performance or the spectacle. You will see this play because of what it’s about.
This play intends to be an exploration of religion and an attempt to understand how fundamental religion can hinder or help a person. While many critics would argue that the play succeeds in its purpose I would argue that the play really only succeeds in explaining why a person would turn away from organized or fundamental religions. Charlie’s questions, thoughts, and responses are well articulated, but he rarely allows Elder Thomas an opportunity to respond or explain why religion is so important. Elder Thomas (who has his own problems with faith, not religion) is constantly being battered for his beliefs without truly being allowed to explain why someone would choose to be religious. He is belittled by almost everyone in the play and forced to make choices and decisions that are opposite of what he believes. All of these plot devices are not a true exploration of religion or the role of religion in our lives, but rather an opportunity for the characters to take religion away from Elder Thomas. As we reach the end of the play, Charlie has not truly learned anything about the role of religion in his life or even taken the time to truly listen to Elder Thomas. Instead he is in exactly the same place spiritually as he was when the play started. The problem with a play that wants to explore religion is that it most often ends up being one-sided. The playwright will either be highly religious or formerly religious but no longer practicing. In both cases the audience is left with a one-sided dialogue about the virtues or non-virtues of religion. What would be truly courageous is a play that honestly explores religion and its role in our country and in the process of doing that, gives equal weight to all sides. In place of this, we are left with something like The Whale that merely talks about religion in an effort to quasi-question our need for it when in reality no character in The Whale is truly interested in learning about religion and its importance in Elder Thomas’ life or its possible importance in their own lives.
Whether you are interested in this type of religious exploration or you find yourself drawn to this play because of its complicated familial tropes, it doesn’t really matter. What’s truly wonderful about this play is that we can see it if we want to because we live in a community that supports new playwrights and brand new works. And that’s what’s truly great about theatre; it provides a voice for those who have something they want to say.
The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunger. November 26-Dec. 20, 2014 produced by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. 4th St., Minneapolis. Tickets: $15 and up; purchase tickets at www.walkingshadowcompany.org/tickets or 612-375-0300.