Samuel Hunter's play The Whale is the tale of a whale of a man, the morbidly obese Charlie, who is literally eating himself to death, and it seems only has a few days left to live...Hunter's play is receiving its Arizona premiere in a thought-provoking production at Stray Cat Theatre with a heartfelt, courageous and emotionally beautiful performance by Damon Dering as Charlie.
Director Ron May has cast this play perfectly with a superb group of individuals, all of whom rise to the challenge of portraying characters who are far from perfect and have all ended up either emotionally, spiritually or physically far away from where they started. Damon Dering, Artistic Director of the Nearly Naked Theatre, is nothing short of excellent with his ability to make us feel compassion for Charlie, a man who has suffered a lot and has put himself in a position of suffering...Dering succeeds in making us feel both pity and shame, as well as a deep sense of sympathy for Charlie. He superbly manages both the dramatic and humorous sides of the character and is frightfully realistic in his ability to show the physical struggles that Charlie goes through. It is a heartbreaking performance that truthfully paints the day to day struggles that people the size of Charlie go through. The fact that Charlie barely moves forces Dering to create this multidimensional character almost entirely with just his voice, face and arms. It is a performance you won't forget.
Charlie's friend Liz is a conflicted individual and Anne Marie Falvey easily manages to get across the two sides of this character...Falvey effortlessly and realistically creates this character and, while at first we don't quite understand what Liz's connection to Charlie is and why she cares for him so much, once we do, Falvey manages to make us see that perhaps Liz needs Charlie more than he needs her. Falvey's Liz is powerful, loving, caring and compassionate, yet the hurt and sadness are visible as well.
Michelle Chin does an admirable job of portraying Charlie's teenage daughter Ellie, who is angry at everything, especially her father whom she hasn't seen since she was two. Her mother doesn't understand her, her grades are failing, and she has no friends, so she's basically your stereotypical angry and lost teenage girl. Yet Chin plays this hurt, difficult and challenging character effortlessly—when we realize that under the surface Ellie is just looking for someone to love her, it makes the outside hurt even more painful. It could have been a one note role, yet Chin and director May have made Ellie multi-dimensional and much more than just an angry young girl.
Elder Thomas has secrets of his own. Like every other character in this play, he is lost...Austin Kiehle perfectly shows Elder Thomas' excitement when he speaks about the Mormon Church as well as painfully showing his nervousness and how uncomfortable he is when Ellie is around. Kiehle is charming, sweet and caring and, once we discover what his character is hiding, Kiehle beautifully shows the pain and sadness and uncertainty of Elder Thomas. Like Chin, he has been so well directed by May that his natural acting abilities and his ease in portraying this character come vibrantly alive.
Johanna Carlisle has less than ten minutes of stage time as Charlie's ex-wife Mary yet she manages to get across many facets of this character, mainly with just a look, an expression, her movement around the stage or the use of her hands...Carlisle not only painlessly shows the anger Mary has toward Charlie but also beautifully illustrates the love she still has for him. There is one moment where she goes from hating him to loving him and back again in just a few seconds that is flawlessly executed and directed. Carlisle conveys Mary as a firecracker ready to explode until the consumption of almost an entire bottle of alcohol douses the flame, yet underneath we still know there is a spark simmering, waiting to detonate.
Director May brilliantly focuses his actors to bring these multi-dimensional characters to life and, like Hunter, he doesn't force any pre-conceived notions on us...He knows how to effectively let the humor in the play break the dramatic moments so it grows organically out of the situations on hand. May's direction is unpretentious and compassionate, just like Charlie.
Creative elements are nicely done, with a clutter-filled apartment set by Eric Beeck that paints the perfect picture of Charlie's sheltered life as well as his predicament. Daniel Chihuahua's costume designs are character appropriate, especially Charlie's sweat-stained sweatshirt and pants. B. Reeves' Fat Suit design for Charlie is flawless, engulfing Dering but still allowing him to fully convey the suffering of the character. Joey Trahan's sound design of the aforementioned sounds of water and waves crashing is a nice touch, and Ellen Bone's lighting plot effectively shows the various times of day. Originally presented Off Broadway without an intermission, the inclusion of one for this production gives a nice breather for the audience and for Dering, who is basically on stage the entire play.
...in many ways it is ultimately a play about honesty and the need to get people to think and state the truth as a way to truly connect to others. When Elder Thomas tells Liz that Charlie has asked him to tell him about the Mormon Church, Liz says that Charlie is a round peg in a square hole, he just doesn't fit in the Mormon Church. Every character in this play is a round peg unable to fit in the square hole of the world they should belong to. In many ways, these five dysfunctional individuals are all somewhat beached whales in how they are disconnected, cut-off and removed from the worlds they came from and how Charlie attempts to help them find a way to get back to a better place before his life is over. The Whale is a stunning, hypnotic play and the Stray Cat Theatre production is superb with perfect direction, an excellent cast and a mesmerizing performance by Damon Dering. It is a performance, a character and a play you won't soon forget.
THIS IS AN ABRIDGED VERSION OF THE ORIGINAL REVIEW - READ IT IN ITS ENTIRETY BELOW