“The Whale” could never be as effective a movie as it is a stage production, for the sheer physicality of live theater is essential to this play’s impact. In the superb production at Rep Stage through Feb. 1, every time the 550-pound Charlie struggles to stand up from the green-slip-covered sofa where he spends most of his life, the immense effort means more because it’s happening in the same room where we’re sitting. When he wheezes, he’s drawing in our oxygen; when he profusely sweats, he’s moistening our air.
It’s obvious that actor Michael Russotto is wearing prosthetics under his gray hoodie and blue sweat pants, but the remarkable Russotto makes us believe that he’s connected to all 550 pounds of the character. We believe it takes every square inch of his limited lung capacity and every ounce of strength in his overburdened muscles to move his mountain of flesh from the couch to the toilet. We believe that he feels as isolated in that body as if it were a fortress or prison.
We shouldn’t be embarrassed if we stare at Charlie with morbid fascination when the lights first come up on the stained green walls, tottering piles of paper, and overflowing trash cans of his Idaho apartment. His body is so out of proportion, so enormous, so exotic that the only honest reaction is to stare. The challenge is: Can we move from that initial reaction to empathy for the person who is that body? Playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s smart dialogue and director Kasi Campbell’s terrific cast make that easy.
It’s almost a very short play. In an early scene Charlie is on the sofa grading papers for the online expository writing class that he teaches, when he suddenly clutches at his chest where his overburdened heart has stopped working. It’s at that point that Elder Thomas (Wood Van Meter), a 19-year-old Mormon missionary, as tall and thin as Charlie is round, knocks on the door. He offers to call for an ambulance, but Charlie absolutely forbids it. Instead the gasping heart victim asks the bewildered stranger to read a student’s immature but heartfelt review of “Moby Dick” aloud.
Why does that review calm Charlie down and restore his heart to working order? Why does he continue to gorge on fried chicken, Cheetos, and meatball subs? Why does he spurn an ambulance? Why do Elder Thomas, Charlie’s best friend Liz, and his daughter Ellie all go along with Charlie’s refusal to go to the hospital? Why do they keep coming back to this unappetizing apartment to help him? Hunter carefully plants all these questions in the opening scenes, and though he takes his time, he eventually provides plausible answers for each and every one.
Liz (the great Megan Anderson on loan from Everyman’s resident acting company) bursts in during Elder Thomas’ recital of the “Moby Dick” review, still wearing the blue scrubs from her nursing job. The short, wiry woman barks at the missionary that the last thing Charlie needs right now is a representative from the church that destroyed his boyfriend. Charlie, as he does throughout the play, apologizes in the soft, wheezing voice of resignation—first to the boy for Liz’s insults and then to Liz for almost dying.
A few scenes later, he keeps apologizing to Ellie (Jenna Rossman), the 17-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen in 15 years, even as she tests him with one nasty insult after another. Later still he’s apologizing to his ex-wife Mary (the wonderful Susan Rome, often seen at Center Stage), a chain-smoking harridan with frosted bangs and a quiver of resentments as sharp as harpoons.
Like Herman Melville’s white whale, Charlie accepts all these barbs and swallows them within his voluminous folds of flesh. Stick it to me, he tells Liz with typical gallows humor; it’s two feet before you hit any important organs. In doing so, he transforms the animosity around him into sympathy in much the same way he turns the audience’s initial revulsion into identification.
Not because he’s a saint—for he’s often annoying and frustrating—but because he makes bad decisions based on good intentions, just as we might, even if we might not carry them out to such extremes. And the four people who invade his apartment boast a similar mix of familiar flaws and virtues, made all too real by the fine ensemble acting.
Liz announces early in the play that Charlie has only a few days to live, and so the show, for all its sharp wit, becomes a kind of deathwatch. The process of dying is often hidden in some hidden recess where cancer cells are multiplying or arteries closing, but here dying takes place in the open, across the broad, well-lit stage of Charlie’s body, in the same room where we are sitting. Near the end of the play Mary overcomes her anger and antipathy to place her ear on her ex-husband’s sweaty, flabby chest in an effort to detect the faltering heartbeat buried deep inside. In that moment she’s the surrogate for every person in the theater.