‘The Whale’ is a hunt for human connection
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org April 17, 2013 1:02PM
Dale Calandra stars as Charlie and Leah Karpel portrays Ellie in “The Whale” at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater.
When: Through May 5
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln
Info: (773) 871-3000; www.victorygardens.org
Run time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission
Updated: April 19, 2013 6:09PM
It’s a good bet you will not find five more lonely, alienated, often angry, sometimes inadvertently funny characters on a single stage than those who gather in Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,” now in its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Theatre. So the question is this: Will THEIR dysfunction serve as YOUR catharsis?
We meet all these characters in the small apartment in northern Idaho that is home to the 600-pound Charlie (Dale Calandra encased in a fat suit), who can barely breathe, and who has enormous difficulty hauling himself up off his couch for periodic visits to the bathroom. The inescapable irony here is that Charlie just might be the most well-adjusted of the five people in Hunter’s play.
In fact, Charlie, who harbors a most fitting passion for Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” is employed (he works as an online writing teacher unseen by those he tutors). He knows he is dying, but he refuses to go to the hospital just to prolong his misery. Besides, he has no health insurance and hopes to hold on to his secret savings for a far more important purpose.
Meanwhile, Charlie is tended to by Liz (Cheryl Graeff), his only friend — a lonely woman, and nurse, who also is his enabler. Liz’s brother was Charlie’s partner — a man who just happened to starve himself to death out of self-hatred and rejection by his religious family.
For all his eating, Charlie is starved in his own way — for human connection. Clearly this is why, despite his contempt for religion, he even is willing to engage with Elder Thomas (Will Allen), the young man who knocks on his door one day and offers to talk about The Book of Mormon.
Yet it is the wholly unexpected arrival of Ellie (the fiercely relentless Leah Karpel), a bright, pretty, wildly angry and rebellious adolescent, who keeps Charlie breathing. She is his long-estranged daughter from a disastrous early marriage to Mary (Patricia Kane), now an alcoholic. And she desperately needs to know her father, despite his grotesque, pathetic existence, or his stench, which she has no compunction about mentioning.
By now you might be rolling your eyes at the over-the-top level of dysfunction at work here. And you could easily fault Hunter for having his characters serve as mouthpieces, even if they are full of bite. Yet there also is no denying that there is something oddly compelling about this work, which has been directed by Joanie Schultz. To begin with there is Calandra’s gentle, understated, even heroic performance. There also is something deeply recognizable in the mix of loathing and need a teenager can feel for a parent, and for the unabashed love a father can feel for the daughter he thinks just might redeem his profoundly unhappy life.
There also is this: Despite their differences in size and situation, all of Hunter’s characters are beached whales — creatures who have found themselves so far from their natural element that they are in mortal peril.
NOTE: Another Hunter drama about the relationships within a fractured family is now on stage here as LiveWire Chicago presents “A Permanent Image,” running through May 5 at The Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. For tickets call (312) 533-4666 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.