I imagine, as with any effective parable that taps into universal themes, one does not require prior knowledge of Jonah and the Big Fish, nor of “Moby-Dick,” to connect with similar lessons brought forth in Samuel D. Hunter’s play “The Whale” — but a little context might enrich the experience.
It’s a brave choice for Hunter to blatantly align this modern story so closely to those from the Bible and Herman Melville. It walks a fine line. Seriously, not only is it named “The Whale,” but the main character Charlie (Jason Stamp) is a morbidly obese English professor, confined to the belly of his dingy apartment, who reads passages from essays on Melville’s work.
The sound design between scenes features ocean waves and seagulls, despite the play taking place in landlocked Idaho. The references are heavy-handed, far from subtle . . . and yet, I think it works. It hits us bluntly and then forces us past dwelling on poetic allusions, to work toward (as Charlie would say) just speaking from the heart.
Just like Moby-Dick, or the whale that held Jonah captive, or the 600-pound man looming large for two continuous hours center stage in this play, it’s not really about the whale at all. We learn a lot about ourselves and others by how we react to the jarring, unusual, or unexpected. We bear witness to those reacting to Charlie and each other. Presenting the play with no intermission is an effective tactic in getting the audience where we slowly, quietly, sometimes painfully need to be.
Characters in a parable can be simplified to serve a purpose. Redemption. Obsession. Displacement. You name it. Don’t try to find extreme depth in Charlie’s friend, daughter, ex-wife, or Mormon visitor; they offer just enough insight for the audience to connect it from there. Trust me, you’ll be thinking about some of their words and actions long after the show.
Take a cue from Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Madeline Jones) as she mouths off to her father about Walt Whitman’s poem and “getting it.” Just because she doesn’t buy into wordy, abstract interpretations doesn’t mean she has no personal understanding of it. Take where you will what these characters offer.
I’m happy to say there’s one area where I took things differently than angry young Ellie, who has an interesting opinion on “Moby-Dick” and its melancholy tale as well. It’s one of the few novels that made me laugh out loud when reading it, which surprised and delighted me given the gravity of much of the content. Come to think of it, I bet Ellie’s father could relate. Stamp plays the role of Charlie with nuance, allowing us to see the humor embodied within the tragic character.
Director Fred Sebulske paces the show wisely, and set design by Christian Poquette makes the apartment feel appropriately like an open wound. The talented cast, including Stamp, Jones, Emily Diener, Jason James Flannery, and Claire Mahave, weave their way through giving just enough high and low notes to build a solid rhythm right to the end.
“The Whale” runs through April 28 at Spectrum Theatre. Visit Actors’ Theatre for tickets.
*Photos courtesy of Actors’ Theatre