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The Rousuck Review: "The Whale"

Katie Simmons-Barth

Theatre critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "The Whale" playing at Rep Stage in Columbia through February 1st. 

Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “The Whale,” includes repeated references to two famous whales: Moby Dick and the whale that swallowed Jonah. But, the title of this 2012 play refers primarily to a “whale” that’s far from famous. He’s a reclusive, middle-aged professor named Charlie. Charlie lives in small-town Idaho and weighs, roughly, 600 pounds. “The Whale” is receiving a nuanced, moving and disturbing regional debut at Rep Stage in Columbia. Under Kasi Campbell’s direction, Michael Russotto’s portrayal of Charlie is a tour-de-force.

Charlie is confined to his propped-up, dilapidated living room couch for almost the entire play. Essentially, he’s immobilized. He teaches solely via the Internet. His students hear him speaking through a headset; they’ve never seen him. Charlie has expectations of his students, but he has no expectations of himself. He gave them up when his lover died. His lover stopped eating after a spiritual crisis. Charlie’s taken the opposite route. He’s eating himself to death.

Russotto wears an immense fat suit to play Charlie. His breathing is labored – almost as much wheezing and coughing as breathing. His long hair is greasy and stringy. When Russotto’s Charlie does have to get up, the monumental struggle feels like slow motion. The effect is so convincing, a patron was overheard saying she thought the actor actually was the size of the character he’s playing.

At this point in his life – near the end – Charlie has only one friend, a nurse named Liz, whose bond with him turns out to be a sad revelation. Liz has an odd method of treating her friend and unofficial patient. She rushes over for any medical emergency, but she also keeps Charlie well stocked with submarine sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken. She’s an enigma, and whether due to the script or the performance, actress Megan Anderson doesn’t seem to have figured her out. Liz desperately wants Charlie to live, but she also wants to give him what he wants.

Liz thinks she alone knows what’s best for Charlie. Shortly after the play begins, a young Mormon missionary shows up at the door. Charlie welcomes the missionary’s company. Liz does not. Liz also questions Charlie’s sudden desire to reconnect with the teenaged daughter he hasn’t seen since she was 2.

The daughter, Ellie, is angry, insolent and hate-filled, and Jenna Rossman’s jittery portrayal is distressing credible. Ellie, disgusted, calls her father – quote -- “a monster.” But it’s her behavior that’s beastly. Bribery is the only way her father can get her to spend time with him.

We’re confronted with one source of Ellie’s bitterness when we meet her extremely bitter mother. As the mother, Susan Rome, an attractive actress, is completely transformed, unrecognizable in another of the production’s fine depictions of human nature at its least attractive.

Charlie may have given up on himself, but he hasn’t given up on the people around him. The way he ekes emotion out of his seemingly unfeeling daughter and ex-wife proves what a great teacher he is – greater, playwright Samuel Hunter suggests, than even the lessons of Herman Melville and the Bible.

Rep Stage’s production of “The Whale” does the same thing to the audience. Director Kasi Campbell’s deeply felt, disquieting approach evokes empathy in places where repulsion might be the expected response.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.