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Charlie (Matthew Arkin) can barely get up from his sofa to go to the bathroom, wheezes more than he can breathe, and hasn’t left his northern Idaho apartment in years. He teaches English composition courses online (voice only) to terminally incurious and unlettered students, yet maintains patience and optimism in one of more intractably frustrating jobs imaginable in academe. Though Charlie isn’t long for this world and refuses to go to a hospital despite chronic congestive heart failure, he attacks each personal interaction with a conviction that he can find encouragement in the smallest of progress and in the primacy of each moment.
Charlie has ballooned ever since his partner Alan died. Alan apparently willed himself to eventual death by wasting away in starvation after a traumatic confrontation with his bishop father in the local Mormon church. Charlie has acquiesced to a similar fate along the contrary path. His sole friend Liz (Blake Lindsley), Alan’s sister, nurses and scolds him, but Charlie seems reconciled to his imminent demise, although he is determined to pursue his unfinished business — from finding the truth about Alan through an errant Mormon missionary (Wyatt Fenner), reconciling with his estranged teenage daughter (Helen Sadler) from his doomed marriage to Mary (Jennifer Christopher), and far from least, commenting and grading his students’ essays.
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The Whale, while inevitably dominated by the weight of its obesity premise, seems more concerned with the act of expressing oneself authentically in writing and with the impacts of teaching and belief than with problems of mortality and determined slow suicide. This lends the drama a poignant dimension and underpins Charlie’s quasi-saintly devotion to helping others find contact with their truest beings. Arkin impressively locates the sweetness and ingenuousness in Charlie’s open soul and transforms what might otherwise be a stunt performance into a transporting transcendence. Charlie incessantly apologizes for himself, resigned to his physical embodiment of an overpowering regret that paradoxically enables him to achieve an uncanny faith in the possibilities for everyone else.
Playwright Samuel D. Hunter has won even greater acclaim for The Whale than for his Obie-winning play A Bright New Boise, which Rogue Machine mounted so memorably last year, though this seems somewhat the lesser work. Both are persuasively and inventively rooted in the undermined literary territory of northern Idaho, where cultural options aside from religion are narrow, yet where the individuality of rejects can coexist, however forced outside social acceptability. Both involve fathers seeking out their neglected children.
The Whale, however, in its deployment of a variety of symbols, from the story of Jonah to Moby Dick, often devolves into merely a well-wrought exemplar of dramaturgy, despite its original vision and persuasive dialogue. In his closing testament to his students, the ever-apologetic Charlie repents of having told them so persistently to rewrite, revise and restructure their feelings and that only their honesty ultimately matters. While The Whale unquestionably remains tethered to its genuine source of conviction, its repetitions do not rise to O’Neill-like invocations, and many of the well-upholstered connections between action and theme feel overly carpentered, tendons and joinery too visible, to make the dramatic payoffs entirely credible rather than organized. The three justifiably angry women in Charlie’s life, while juicily portrayed, tend to represent overly singular qualities, and ultimately none of the characters survive reflective scrutiny.
Nevertheless, this accessible, entertaining and original work augurs well for Hunter’s essential talent, and the production probably could not be bettered.
Venue: South Coast Repertory (runs through Mar. 31)
Cast: Matthew Arkin, Wyatt Fenner, Blake Lindsley, Helen Sadler, Jennifer Christopher
Director: Martin Benson
Playwright: Samuel D. Hunter
Sset designer: Thomas Buderwitz
Lighting designer: Donna and Tom Ruzika
Music and Sound designer: Michael Roth
Costume designer: Angela Balogh Calin
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