A Stunning THE WHALE at the REP

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

A Stunning WHALE at the REP

Susan Rome and Michael Russotto

Susan Rome and Michael Russotto

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com January 19, 2015

As I had previously noted in these pages, the REP Stage in Columbia recently announced an initiative to produce “stunning new plays by young American playwrights.” Their first show after the announcement didn’t exactly stun me; this time around, with the regional premiere of Samuel D. Hunter‘s 2012 play The Whale, the word “stunning” fits. The play thoughtfully tackles some very large subjects, and the REP has given it a first-rate staging.

The central very large subject, the Whale of the title, is morbidly obese Charlie (Michael Russotto), who teaches college-level expository writing online because he is far too debilitated to leave his ill-kept little apartment. He has one friend, a nurse named Liz (Megan Anderson). The college students he deals with online seem to be, without exception, inarticulate and unengaged, and he in turn appears equally clueless about how to live or even save the life he is rapidly growing too large to hold onto, despite Liz’s best efforts. His path to this lonely and isolated place only comes out gradually. As the story emerges, though, it becomes apparent that he is engaged in a heroic quest of sorts to salvage something of importance from a lifelong struggle.

At one level, that struggle could be characterized as a fight for the dignity of homosexual love (Charlie is, and a deceased lover was, gay) against the moral orthodoxy of Mormonism, a religious persuasion that seems to have a bigger presence in Idaho, where the play is set, than in the more heterodox East. A little deeper, the fight might be characterized as between empathy (Liz and Charlie are full of it) and the lack of it, evinced by Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie (Jenna Rossman), who seethes with nastiness toward everyone, and in a different way by Elder Thomas (Wood Van Meter), a Mormon missionary, whose stance of universal benevolence masks some complicated reservations. Beyond even that, Charlie seems to be fighting for authenticity of emotion, his touchstone for which is a dismissive essay on Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick written by a naive student. This unlettered essay carries some special resonance for Charlie, not explained until the very end. But the sincerity and passion Charlie sees in the essay largely explain why Charlie is willing to lay down his life to prevail in his quixotic struggle.

Honestly, this multivalent struggle is a little too complicated to jimmy into a two-hour drama. I did not buy the argument with the Moby Dick essay nor did I credit the impact of a retelling of the Book of Jonah upon Charlie’s old love affair. These ancient and epic whale stories had an obvious thematic congruence with a story about an obese man, and one can see why playwright Hunter would have wanted to find a way to put them in, but congruence remains all there is. Their relevance to Hunter’s present-day story is unpersuasive and helps render that story slightly incoherent.

No matter. Trust me: you will become so absorbed with these characters that the cluttered thematic apparatus with the whale stories and the authenticity-of-emotion issue won’t matter. You will care far more about who these people are and what they’re going to do next. In the end the Whale’s heroism matters; the motivations the dramatist tenders for that heroism don’t much. It’s just an interesting story touchingly told, and well-paced by Director Kasi Campbell.

The acting is just spectacular.

Obviously the largest weight (in all senses of the word) falls upon Michael Russotto; I really don’t know how he managed to pull off such a convincing impersonation of a seriously fat man, complete with wheezes and struggles to pull himself sufficiently upright to grasp a walker. No doubt movement coach Jenny Male (whose work I’ve noted before in these pages) had a lot to do with it. And his ability to communicate his character’s unrelenting care even for those who are vilifying him, willingness to cast his pedagogical pearls before Freshman Comp swine, and determination to see his project through unto death, are simply wonderful acting.

I was also much impressed by the relatively brief turn by Susan Rome as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, who compresses into maybe 20 minutes onstage a sense of much shared history, bitterness, some measure of forgiveness, alcoholism, and resignation to her daughter’s apparent awfulness.

Jenna Rossman takes what is these days a more conventional role, a bitter, sarcastic, Internet-empowered angry child with just a hint of decency held in check by mistrust, and goes to town with it. And Wood Van Meter does all that is necessary in the role of a Mormon missionary, i.e. a man called to radiate certainty at an age so youthful that his certainty must inevitably bespeak nothing but folly and denial of human variability and weakness. You will have seen his character’s like in The Book of Mormon. Megan Anderson, a consummate professional well-known to Baltimore audiences, nails the role of the aggressively competent, loving and concerned friend.

Let me comment in addition that I think I see something interesting going on with the casting. I have written in these pages and elsewhere about the difficulties of creating a local Equity-level stage in the Baltimore area with so few venues that employ Equity actors, and with Center Stage so firmly entrenched in its penchant for casting with Equity actors from New York and anywhere but here. (The new management there talks a good game on this but the casting choices they have usually made talk louder.) The new artistic direction team at the REP, Co-Producing Artistic Directors Suzanne Beal and Joseph W. Ritsch, seems actually to be doing something about the problem. Megan Anderson is primarily a product of Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre; Susan Rome is a veteran of Center Stage and the late lamented Baltimore Shakespeare Festival; Michael Russotto is a member of Washington’s Woolly Mammoth troupe. And I would add that the pedigrees of the offstage talent involved with this production reveal deep roots in the Towson University theater program especially, but also other local programs including Catholic and Stevenson Universities. From all indications, then, the fostering of a regional Equity-level acting (and backstage) corps looks to be part of the REP’s agenda. This is welcome.

The Whale is on a regrettably short run. Act quickly to see it, because it should not be missed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Katie Simmons-Barth

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review