Plays have all sorts of protagonists, but it’s safe to say that for sheer size, even William Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff would have a tough time rivaling the central figure in Samuel D. Hunter’s drama The Whale.
Charlie is the man moored at the center of Hunter’s play. He has eaten his way into a body that weighs something in the neighborhood of 600 pounds, on purpose, and he knows his last days on earth are just that — death isn’t far off. But Charlie, a smart and complicated man who teaches expository writing online, has personal business to resolve before he checks out.
A widely-produced drama that has solidified Hunter’s reputation as one of the country’s finest young playwrights, The Whale gets its South Florida premiere at GableStage on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Staged by artistic director Joseph Adler, the production features Carbonell Award-winning actor Gregg Weiner as Charlie, Carbonell winner Deborah L. Sherman as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, Carbonell winner Amy Miller Brennan as his closest friend Liz, Arielle Hoffman as his estranged teen daughter Ellie and Karl Skyler Urban as a surprising Mormon missionary named Thomas.
“Surprising” is a description that applies to a great deal of The Whale, a quality that deepens and enriches characters who initially seem easy to pigeonhole. Charlie is a physical disaster, but he has a complex back story. Mary’s a heavy drinker whose rough life is fueling her destructive escapism. Liz is Charlie’s enabler, the one who brings him huge quantities of food, but their connection was forged in a mutual loss. Ellie is a ball of fury with a tamped-down vulnerability. And Thomas is a missionary with more than one secret.
“If someone had said to me, ‘I’m writing a play about a 600-pound man,’ I would have said, ‘Don’t send it,’ ” Adler says. “But Charlie is so vibrant and human. He’s someone you care about, someone who can make you laugh and cry, almost in the same scene.”
Hunter says the initial idea for The Whale came from his own experiences teaching writing at Rutgers University.
“I was having a difficult time reaching my students,” Hunter says. “I started the play and got about 15 or 20 pages into it, but it wasn’t crackling. It was dry. I had to drop back into an emotional space. I don’t know where I got the idea about obesity. I think it was rooted in a sense of alienation between Charlie and [his students], Charlie and the other characters, Charlie and the audience. Especially in America, the way we talk about obesity makes it seem like the last socially acceptable prejudice.”
Physically, Weiner is the tall, fit antithesis of Charlie. To acquire Charlie’s bulk, Weiner dons a “fat suit” created by costume designer Ellis Tillman. Simulating the kind of body you see on TLC’s My 600-lb. Life, the costume adds some 40 to 50 pounds to the actor’s frame, and Weiner has worn it constantly during seven-hour rehearsals for The Whale.
Adler brought in a doctor friend, dietetics specialist Robert Besen, at the start of rehearsals to explain to the cast the physical realities for a man of Charlie’s size, including congestive heart failure and breathing difficulties.
“He went over details so we could make it as authentic as possible,” Weiner says. “At the same time, I have to remember I’m still doing a play and trying to tell a story.”
The Whale, which contains pointed references to Moby Dick, isn’t simply a drama about a man eating his way to oblivion. As Hoffman observes, “The back story of this emotional trauma ... is so much more than it seems.” Unexpectedly moving and sometimes amusing, the play unfolds in short scenes over a five-day period. Its subjects include religion, fractured families and what happens after two men fall in love. And its characters share a common predicament.
“These people are terrified of empathy and human connection,” Hunter says. “There’s a vulnerability there.”
Hunter, Weiner says, “does an amazing job of creating flawed characters. We each have our own epiphany. Charlie knows he’s dying, but he evolves. [The playwright] captures humanity in its most honest form.”
Hunter, an Idaho native who studied playwriting at New York University, the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Juilliard, first gained national attention with his 2010 play A Bright New Boise, about a onetime evangelist who takes a job at Hobby Lobby as he awaits the Rapture and tries to reconnect with the son he gave up for adoption. His earlier plays, he thinks, were full of “formalistic gymnastics and stylistic gestures.” Boise and The Whale, though, won him awards and set him on a new path.
“I figured out the relationship between form and content,” Hunter says. “I said, ‘I just want to calm down and write a play about people.’ ”