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New York City Theater

"The Whale"
Playwrights Horizons

In his messy Idaho apartment, Charlie, a 500-pound behemoth, is dying of congestive heart failure. Confined to couch or walker, he is eating himself to death, comforted by well-meaning visitors. This is the setting and circumstance for “The Whale,” Samuel D. Hunter’s hypnotic, beautifully acted “The Whale,” which uses Herman Melville’s masterpiece “Moby-Dick” as its touchstone.

Liz is the sister of Charlie’s deceased boyfriend, Alan; Elder Thomas is a young Mormon missionary out to save Charlie’s soul; Mary is Charlie’s angry former wife; Ellie is their bitter, cruel daughter.

Charlie, an online instructor of expository writing, wants to uncover what caused Alan to give up on life. Was it something said at a sermon given by Alan’s Mormon father, paralleling the hell-and-damnation sermon on Jonah and the whale in Melville?

More pressing is Charlie’s desire to reconnect with estranged daughter Ellie. Pushing her to be honest about herself, to care, he treasures her essay on “Moby-Dick” that claims “the author is trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.”

This is a tightly focused work of humanity and understanding. At its center is a towering performance by Shuler Hensley. A gentle giant, he imparts compassion to others in his orbit, as Ishmael does in Melville’s tale. Playwright Hunter has an ear for how people speak and react in moments of crisis.

Under Davis McCallum’s direction, “The Whale” never loses sight of inner hurts and fears beneath outward appearances. Its literary allusions reinvigorate reality and unite us with our empathic selves.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 22, 2012

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