top of page

1/19/2024        THE WHALE                                                        AuthentiCity Theatre


pgm Whale.jpg

(Because much of it was background template, some of this is plagiarized from my appreciations of Actor’s Express’s 2015 production and 2022’s  movie version.)


The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter is a heartfelt portrait of a gentle soul surrounded by ungentle people.  It is a condemnation of religious cruelty, mean-girl teen aspiration, and critical over-analysis.  It is a moving depiction of grief and loss.  And, at heart (and in ultimate effect), it is a celebration of embracing the aspects of life that "really matter."


Charlie is morbidly obese and is embracing the death sentence his congestive heart has passed.  He is confined to his living room couch, from which he teaches on-line composition, watches "Judge Judy" with his helper, and longs to reconnect with his daughter, whom he hasn't seen since she was two.  He is also in a pit of grief over the death of his partner.  Into his Idaho home stumbles Elder Thomas, a young Mormon on his mission.  Charlie wants Elder Thomas to solve a mystery from his past, Elder Thomas wants to "bring God" to this "sinning homosexual" before the end.


Throughout the play, Charlie is rooted in place.  People come and go, people who love him, hate him, want to change him.  Elder Thomas is appealing and earnest and has a few "interesting" secrets of his own.  Charlie's helper, Liz, is the sister of his ex-lover, a man who wasted to death after hearing a mysterious Mormon "reading."  Charlie's daughter, Ellie, is an angry young woman, who hates Charlie, hates her mother, hates the world and everyone in it.  Ellie's mother, Mary, is a bitter alcoholic who has given up on her daughter ("She is evil!") and given up on Charlie since his betrayal of her.

And centering it all is the calm benevolence of Charlie.  He may have given up on life, but he hasn't given up on any of his visitors.  He also has not given up on his students, faceless and nameless, who have been conditioned to write what they think Charlie wants them to write, ignoring what they really feel, what they are passionate about, what really matters to them.


But, more than everything, Charlie wants to pierce the armor of his troubled daughter, even though she is effectively a stranger to him.  He sees in her a passion of honesty (tactless and hateful though it may be) that he tries to nurture, constantly ignoring her casual cruelties.  It is this struggle that is central to the play, that provides its driving force, that pays off beautifully in its final moments.


And this play is filled with breathtakingly honest moments.  Mary, unconsciously caressing Charlie's chest as she listens for his struggling heartbeat.  Liz providing food to Charlie, even though she recognizes it's killing him.  Ellie taking an interest in Elder Thomas, committing an action that SEEMS hateful and mean, but is, in reality, the best thing anyone could have done for him.  Liz bringing a "fat guy wheelchair" into the apartment so Charlie can become (slightly) mobile and less dependent for those "disgusting personal activities." 


One recurring plot point is a semi-okay essay on Moby Dick that Charlie uses as a lifeline.  It's a tad clumsily written, but it shows an insight into Charlie and the downward spiral of his life.  There are also references to the biblical story of Jonah, as if one whale metaphor weren't enough.  The symbolism is obvious, but that doesn't lessen its emotional resonance, it's more-than-symbolic effect on Charlie's life.


I suspect a lot of this would not work without a Charlie who commands the stage, our attention, our empathy.   And, like Freddie Ashley back in 2015, Sean Bryan here is the perfect Charlie.  This sets the 2024 standards for performance with an exceedingly high bar.   Mr. Bryan, imprisoned by a no-doubt-sweltering "fat suit" (Charlie weighs in at almost 600), still manages to convey every emotional moment convincingly, the effort it takes to move, to think, to even breathe.  If Charlie is physically grotesque, he is emotionally glowing -- his good will and optimism are a perfect larger-than-life antidote to the emotional grotesqueries of the other characters.  And Mr. Bryan captures every moment so perfectly that, even when he is unconscious (Ellie has slipped him some Ambien), he dominates the scene.


I also very much liked Carson Hebblethwaite, who makes Ellie more than a shrill one-note teenager.  True, Back in the say, I heard many of her snarky lines coming out of my own daughter's mouth, so I may be inclined to like her in spite of herself.  Still, she puts so much hurt beneath her hate, that she makes the strained connection with her father credible, even desirable.


The entire cast, in fact, works together smoothly, especially  when they're mixing about as well as chalk and cheese – Sarah Sutherland’s Liz is nurturing even when she is being cold and prickly.  Ibrahim Sedebeh gives Elder Thomas such profound earnestness that you want to listen to his "spiel," even when he's being pedantic and hypocritical.  And Sasha Keefer makes the most of her short appearance as Mary, convincing in her anger at Charlie, at the affection she still carries like a weapon, at her honest fear of (and for) her daughter.


Scott Keefer has given us a set that is cluttered, confined, a tad scurvy, and totally defines Charlie and his life.  OTOH, the play covers a full week, and it may strain credibility that Liz would allow such vermin-magnet garbage remain on the floor, even as some of the detritus makes us question how deeply the set dressers checked details – QT boxes and wrappers are strewn about even though the closest QT to Northern Idaho is in Colorado.  Still, these are minor blips that are quickly overcome by the honesty and emotional power of the ensemble.


I was also curious why the choice was made to mic the cast.  This is a small, intimate, acoustically alive space in which a whisper can be heard and understood.  But then, as a soundtrack to most of the scene transitions – and there are many – we hear Mr. Bryan wheezing laboriously, driving home his spiraling health and intensifying our empathy with him.


Indeed, it is Sean Bryan that is the real reason for this production’s success, just as it was Freddie Ashley who elevated the 2015 production, just as it was Brendan Fraser who made the movie version so unforgettable.    It is because of him that we see Ellie's potential, that we forgive the cruelties of everyone he meets.  He convinced me  that the ending showed there was actually some hope for him, that the best thing for Ellie would be for him to stay alive and in her life.  And, under Robby Myles’ exceptional direction, the moving finale proved to be a total gut-punch of a moment.


The Whale is an exceptional play, a Moby Dick from the perspective of the whale (if you'll forgive the central metaphor), a tale of a world-weary man who can't help but grasp at that one last lifeline coming his way.


It had me blubbering.

     -- Brad Rudy (    #AuthentiCity   #TheWhale

bottom of page