|F,J, Hartland as Charlie and Amy Landis as Liz in "The Whale"|
The very idea of a 600 pound man is almost incomprehensible, but in a staging of "The Whale," now at the Off the Wall performing Arts Center in Carnegie, the concept take palpable shape with grotesque physicality. With the aid of a "fat suit," F. J. Hartland balloons into the guise of Charlie, an online writing teacher barely able to get up off his chair unaided, gasping for breath and wheezing, stoking upwards his sky-high blood pressure by consuming tons of junk food. Or at least, that’s what set designer, Rich Preffer, suggests with a back wall engulfed with the detritus of packaged fast food. It’s pizza boxes, candy cartons, soft drink packets and more stuffed into the background floor to ceiling.
To understand the overweight man’s plight, playwright Samuel D. Hunter looks both backward at his failed marriage and the unrequited sorrow that lingers for years after the death of his partner, yet forward to his almost sacrificial desire to make things right by troubled daughter, Ellie, who despises him but is lured back into his life with the promise of an inheritance.
Hunter takes his time in telling the tale, letting unfold gradually like the melting of a winter’s snow in Northern Idaho, where the play is set. Early on, before the introduction of the play’s recurrent leitmotifs of the Biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale and Melville’s novel of the great white whale, Moby Dick, sound designer, Ryan McMasters’ background audio of sea waves beating against a shore seem out-of-place for a state hundreds of miles away from an ocean.
As Charlie, Hartland seems a noble soul, tragically doomed to eat himself to death out of depression and despair, yet steadfast in his zeal for avoiding the expense of hospital care so that his life’s saving can pass on to his daughter, whom he loves ardently. His one and only friend, Liz, is equally adamant that he seek professional help, but stays with him as caregiver despite his constant refusals to take her advice. As Liz, Amy Landis is a dramatic spark plug adding an energized counterpoint to Hartland’s slower-paced performance, understandably necessitated by his character’s failing health.
One unresolved issue on Charlie’s bucket list is the reason behind his partner’s desire for death by starvation that coalesced immediately after he sat through a sermon delivered by his Mormon father, an elder at the local church. A little too conveniently, a young Mormon missionary comes knocking on his door, a perfect set-up for some provocative exchanges about religion between Charlie and the young lad.
As Elder Thomas, the green-behind-the-ears evangelist, Brian Knoebel brings a lot of energy to the role as well as an initial air of innocence that eventually takes a more earthy turn. Some of the play’s best moments occur when he first encounters, Ellie, Charlie’s sullen, rebellious, sarcastic, quick-witted daughter, played with gleeful contrariness by Abby Quatro.
Ellie plays with the zealous young man like a lioness with a frightened wildebeest, an unequal match that soon has the young man fessing up to some shadowy issues from his own past. While the give-and-take between the two make for a good bit of levity, the scene sags a bit when Knoebel goes over the top as Thomas after taking a mind altering drug normally associated with a mellowing out rather than an energizing stimulus.
The final piece in the narrative is Mary, Charlie’s former wife, a distraught, neurotic with her own slew of unresolved issues and dashed expectations. Dana Hardy’s characterization, while slightly less of a barbed harpoon than Ellie’s, dredges up the past and puts the present in perspective in one of the play’s strongest moments.
Director Linda Haston keeps a tight reign on her ensemble of spirited steeds and gives the play a certain rhythmic finesse. She avoids the possible pratfalls of having it descend into pathos and morbid sentimentality while retaining its potent dramatic impact.
With impressive performances by all members of the cast, Hartland’s is still the one that stands out most in my mind. Encumbered by an outlandishly heinous costume, he’s convincing both as an ailing man on the verge of death and as someone with a depth of character and a narrative worth listening to.
"The Whale" is at the Off the Wall Performing Arts Center, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie through May 9. Phone 1-888-71-TICKETS.