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Victory Gardens’ ‘Whale’ a tale of unconditional love

Dale Calandrstars as Charlie (left) Leah Karpel portrays his estranged angry daughter Ellie Midwest premiere “The Whale' Victory Gardens Biograph

Dale Calandra stars as Charlie (left) and Leah Karpel portrays his estranged and angry daughter, Ellie, in the Midwest premiere of “The Whale" at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater.

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‘The Whale’

♦ To May 5

♦ Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln

♦ Tickets, $20-$60

♦ (773) 871-3000;

Updated: April 10, 2013 2:31PM

The first thing playwright Samuel D. Hunter wants you to know about “The Whale” is that even though the play’s main character is a 600-pound man this is not a play about obesity.

“If the play is about one thing, it’s empathy,” Hunter says. “I suppose the experiment of the play was to put a character on stage that we might initially keep at arm’s length, and then slowly he becomes a carriage for our empathy. It’s the mechanism that a lot of my plays operate on — putting someone on stage that we’re not normally asked to identify with, and make them the protagonist.”

But everyone connected to the play admits that the opening scene is a stunning image. Encased in a fat suit is Dale Calandra as the morbidly obese Charlie, a reclusive online writing instructor who works at home from the comfort of his couch. Suffering from congestive heart failure, he becomes desperate to reconnect with Ellie (Leah Karpel), his estranged and angry teenage daughter.

The humorous and tough play, now making its Chicago debut at Victory Gardens Theater, also features Cheryl Graeff as Liz, his enabling caregiver; Will Allen as Elder Thomas, a Mormon on a mission who becomes caught up in Charlie’s drama; and Patricia Kane as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary.

“It’s easy to feel connected to this play because it’s so much about family and the importance of unconditional love that everyone needs,” director Joanie Schultz says. “For different reasons, each of these characters exists in a sort of isolation. What makes the play work it that they are trying and trying to get around the obstacles in their way.”

Hunter is one of four new names added last year when Victory Gardens shook up its longstanding Playwrights Ensemble. Based in New York, his work was seen mostly Off Off Broadway including his 2010 breakthrough play “A Bright New Boise” (a dark comedy about family and faith) which won an Obie Award. He then moved to Off Broadway where “The Whale” was first produced at Playwrights Horizons.

Victory Gardens is the fourth theater to stage the play. At each turn, Hunter worked with the various directors and actors to polish the play.

“Actually one of the reasons I love writing for theater is that a script is constantly evolving as it gets into the hands of new talented actors, designers and directors,” Hunter says. “Writing a play is almost like raising a child, early on you’re teaching them who they are and how they exist in the world, but eventually you have to let go and they start teaching you.”

As evidenced in “The Whale,” Hunter is skillful at presenting off-putting characters that over the course of the play become more humanized and relatable.

“This play is so much about family and the unconditional love that everyone needs,” Schultz says. “By the end everyone can see themselves in Charlie and we feel for him and with him.”

For his part, Calandra is not a stranger to acting in a fat suit. He spent time wearing one as mother figure Edna Turnblad in the national touring production of “Hairspray.” However, this time around there are new challenges that have actually been interesting to figure out.

“Dale can’t move around much or change his posture so he has to project out of it,” Schultz explains. “Creatively, we had to built the play in a certain way around him and the character so that everyone has access to him.”

Added Calandra: “It’s odd but I love the physical challenge of the role. I’ve enjoyed exploring Charlie’s journey. In fact, I often let Charlie lead me when I’m not so sure about what to do next. I trust he will take me to the right place.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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