As a writer, I am not often at a loss for words. But, when I went to see The Whale at Off the Wall Performing Arts Center (OTW) on Saturday night, I left the theater practically speechless. My sister show-goer, Suzanne Weessies, and I tried to discuss the play during the drive home, but all we said for the first few minutes were simple phrases like “Wow” and “That was amazing.” We couldn’t come up with anything more at the time, because we were both still in shock from the powerful, moving thing we’d just witnessed.
Acclaimed playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning drama finds a beyond-morbidly-obese man holed up in an apartment adjoining northern Idaho’s Mormon country. He’s on the verge of dying, knocking on death’s door, when doors in his own life begin to open, ushering in new faces, old problems and a final shot at redemption.
A modern masterpiece in terms of its writing, Hunter’s plot takes us on a journey through main character Charlie’s past, present and limited future, slowly showing how his weight, and circumstances in life, came to encumber him so greatly and burden those around him. And, like any great journey, The Whale is filled with pits and peaks, twists and turns, and unexpected roadblocks, as well as bittersweet moments shared with other travelers. From strained personal relationships, lost love and sexual identity to religious quandaries, bad habits, and issues over self-expression and ownership over one’s beliefs, writing and choices, no hefty stone is left unturned or, in a many instances, unheaved.
As much as Hunter’s script is a masterpiece of writing, so, too, the Pittsburgh Theater Premier cast delivered a masterpiece in terms of their performance. The above summary is but the skeleton of The Whale, to which the five-person ensemble added many meaty layers, fleshing out the matters of a heart buried beneath 600 pounds of a deep and delicate, somewhat dark character.
What F.J. Hartland did on the stage as Charlie was beyond criticism. He tackled a very complex role from many different angles and infused every pretend pound in his fat-suit with recognizable, relatable emotion. As the result of Hartland’s wise artistic decisions, the audience was pulled directly into Charlie’s life, to laugh at his remarks, cry at his suffering, and feel sympathy, aggravation and concern over his predicament. While it may be true that this is the goal of every theater production, it is not often that such immersion is accomplished as superbly and completely as it was in The Whale, which, for a brief two hours, made me feel like I really was somewhere else, like a fly on a wall, secretly watching others’ real life unfold before me.
Joining Hartland on stage were Amy Landis (Liz), Brian Knoebbel (Elder Thomas), Abby Quatro (Ellie) and Dana Hardy (Mary). No one of these actors matched Hartland’s intended size, though they all undoubtedly matched his talent. Jaded yet hopeful; determined yet clouded; disgruntled yet vulnerable; and distant yet defensive—each thespian, in turn, embodied his or her character fully, artfully portraying the juxtaposition and conflict around which Hunter’s plotline is centered. Their lines, exchanges, movements and responses were entirely believable, and provoked laughter, abhorrence and sadness.
As per other aspects of the production, they were, to the average audience member’s eye, flawless. Character shifts and clean-ups on the one-set stage were achieved quickly and without notice in the darkened theater, with fitting music and sounds of nature covering up any inadvertent clamor. What’s more, the sounds supported the progression of the story and further amplified the chaos and sense of intimate attachment brewing around the venue’s small main stage, pulling the audience deeper and deeper into this remarkable rendering of a remarkable work.
Remarkable, indeed! Many words come to mind when attempting to describe OTW’s production of The Whale, but, perhaps, none so fitting as the one word OTW Managing Director Hans Gruenert used to reference it in our casual conversation before curtain: brilliant. I’ve been promised a lot of things in my life—and haven’t gotten most—but as far as Gruenert’s promise that I’d find The Whale “brilliant,” I’m pleased to say that his cast and crew delivered.
That said, however, there was one major problem with Saturday’s performance—and it need be mentioned, for, if left unresolved, it’d mean this show would never get the attention, accolades and/or recognition it deserves… At Saturday’s performance, there were only 25 people in the audience, myself and Suz included. Unfortunately, Off the Wall is off the grid for many people, and, according to Gruenert, the venue doesn’t really pick up until the season is nearly over. Alas, the season is, once again, nearly over, but there’s still plenty you can do to bring this gem of a venue into the limelight. It’s not too late to get tickets to see The Whale, and it’s not too early to purchase a ticket package for OTW’s 2015-2016 season.
The Whale runs at OTW Friday, Saturday, Sunday through May 3. Tickets can be purchased here, or by calling 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Special thanks to Off the Wall Performing Arts Center for complimentary press tickets