by Barbara Waldinger
According to playwright Samuel D. Hunter, his award-winning play, The Whale, was conceived while he was teaching a course in expository writing to freshmen at Rutgers University. What he learned was that in order to teach students how to write a good essay, he had to teach them not only to think independently but to have empathy. Throughout the play, Charlie, his main character, recites a seemingly short, simple essay about Moby Dick that demonstrates these qualities.
Like Hunter, Charlie teaches writing, hoping to find moments of “naked sincerity” in his students’ work. A morbidly obese man bent on eating himself to death, Charlie seeks a connection with his teenage daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a young child. Having left his family to live with his partner Alan, a Mormon and former student who has since passed away, Charlie begs and bribes his daughter to spend time with him. Rounding out the cast is Liz, Alan’s sister, a nurse who cares for Charlie, Elder Thomas, a young Mormon who claims to have been sent on a mission to northern Idaho, where the play takes place, and Mary, Charlie’s former wife. The visits of each of these characters to Charlie’s home comprise the structure of the play. What do they each want of Charlie? What does he want from them? Why does he choose to end his life? How do they try to stop him? We explore these questions and many more in a play that, despite its premise, offers hope and empathy.
Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon gives a beautifully layered performance as Charlie. Kudos to George W. Veale VI who constructed the fat suit worn by this character, which is so realistic that it is painful to watch Charlie try to sit, stand, or move in it. Equally difficult to witness are Charlie’s attempts to overcome chest pains, and eventually to breathe on his own. I found myself taking the deep breaths that Charlie was unable to do during the course of the play.
Despite the circumstances of Charlie’s situation, he still manages to teach—his online students cannot see him—and struggles to find a way to help them express what they truly feel. A wonderful listener, Charlie, like a therapist, seems to motivate his visitors to confide in him. As delightful as it was to see his beautiful smile in conversation with them, it was heartbreaking to hear him continually apologize, seemingly for his very existence.
Sam Therrien is the costume designer and plays Charlie’s daughter, Ellie. I could not wait to see the outrageous costumes she chose for herself in each of her scenes. With her Goth look, torn stockings, half-shaven head and heavy makeup, she is the epitome of a rebellious teenager, who repeatedly gets into trouble and fails all her subjects. Terribly cruel and contemptuous of her father, she not only demands to get paid for her time, but also that Charlie write her essays for class. Her valley-girl monotone and constant cell phone use belie the anger and emotional turmoil raging inside of her. I was impressed by the development of her character throughout the play, especially in her scene with Dane Shiner as Elder Thomas. It was here that the two young people established a true connection.
Elder Thomas is not all that he seems. Complex and troubled, the characters shed their outer layer in the course of the play, as they reach out to connect on a deeper level. We too find ourselves rejecting our first impressions as we develop empathy for these human beings and their suffering. Although Shiner presents a wonderfully comic persona in his early scenes (he certainly makes the most of that bicycle helmet), it was when he revealed his true self to Ellie and later to Charlie that I fully appreciated his performance.
Liz, a nurse who cannot save her patient because he refuses to allow her to take him to a hospital, is played convincingly by Meaghan Rogers. We witness how deeply she cares for him and feel her frustration in every scene. But her moving monologue about her brother Alan was the highlight of her performance for me.
Nancy Schaffer, a Town Players Co-Treasurer making her acting debut with the group, plays Charlie’s ex-wife, Mary, who, despite all that we hear about her anger and resentment towards him, finally shows her lasting feelings for him.
When I entered the theatre, I was happily surprised to see the platform stage and the bright lighting. It was the first time I had seen a proscenium at the Whitney Center. Also impressive was Ryan Cavanaugh’s extensive set as well as props by Thomas Suski and Gabby West, including a refrigerator, a stove, television, couch, chairs, thousands of books and trash as far as the eye could see. However, as the play progressed, I found that because Charlie used a walker, a wheelchair, a computer, an oxygen tank and various other medical supplies, the set became too crowded. During the disruptive blackouts after every scene, I was distracted by the movement of set pieces on or off the stage, which temporarily broke the illusion that we were indeed in Charlie’s place.
The director, Jackie DeGiorgis, opened the evening in comic mode. Dressed as a doctor complete with stethoscope, she ushered us into an imaginary hospital, mentioning the bedpan shortage by way of letting us know where the bathrooms were located, and indicating that there would be an intermission, by referring to the “visiting hours” during which we could buy candy in the gift shop. It was a wonderfully inventive beginning and signaled that the play would have its light moments. She elicited heartfelt performances from the actors and helped us to enter the world of this lovely and touching play.
The Town Players of Pittsfield present The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter at the Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield, MA, March 17-26, 2o17. Director: Jackie DeGiorgis; Scenic Designer: Ryan Cavanaugh; Lighting Designer: Rob Dumais; Costume Designer: George Veale (fat suit) and Sam Therrien; Sound Designer: John Fletcher; Stage Manager: Gabby West. Cast: Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon (Charlie), Dane Shiner (Elder Thomas), Meaghan Rogers (Liz), Sam Therrien (Ellie), and Nancy Schaffer (Mary). The show runs 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission. The audience is advised that there are adult situations and language. Tickets available at the door or call 413-443-9279. $15 general admission; #12 students/seniors/groups 10+; $10 Town Players members.