By J. Scott Hill
At five foot eight and three hundred and fifty pounds, I was proportionately the fattest person at the opening of The Whale. Opening night audiences are mostly made up of industry people, and there are a limited number of Santa Clauses, Tevyes, and Nicely-Nicely Johnsons among them. I rarely stay for post-show receptions, but I had to cut through the entire length of this one to use the restroom. As I struggled my way through the Victory Gardens’s tightly packed lobby, I felt many pairs of eyes upon me, watching what the fat guy would eat from the buffet (nothing), or how many doughnuts or bags of Doritos the fat guy would stuff into his satchel for later (none). At this reception after a poignant drama centered upon a six-hundred-pound man, serving doughnuts and bags of Doritos was not funny, not even in an ironic hipster way; it was mocking, prejudiced, and hateful. This may be the fault of the caterers, however, because Director Joanie Shultz obviously takes a very thoughtful, honest look at the effects of stress eating, obesity, and overeating as slow suicide in Victory Gardens Theater’s production of The Whale. Shultz is careful never to make this show about fat; fat is sometimes a symptom of the drama and fat is sometimes a cause of the drama, but fat is not really the subject of this show. Still, I hope that Victory Gardens’s Artistic Director Chay Yew fires the caterers on artistic grounds before the opening of Mojada in July. Otherwise, the opening night guests may be served Fritos and refried beans out of novelty sombreros because some mocking, prejudiced, hateful menu planner thinks that is funny in an ironic hipster kind of way.
The hand of a brilliant director is necessary (and Director Joanie Shultz is brilliant here, make no mistake) to tell the story contained within Samuel D. Hunter’s script. The script is a little too contrived at times — for example, the title The Whale comes from the notions that the six-hundred-pound main character just happens to be deeply affected by both an essay about Moby Dick and the biblical story of Jonah. But there are some wonderful surprises, too, which I won’t reveal here as not to spoil those surprises. Samuel D. Hunter excels at presenting many of the more predictable or cliché things in The Whale in unpredictable, non-cliché ways — and that writerly gift is the salvation and the strength of this script.
Director Joanie Schultz is careful not to let us see the morbidly obese main character, Charlie, eat very much. We do see him drink soda fairly often, however, and it is always out of a large McDonald’s cup. The cinderblocks that hold up Charlie’s sagging sofa are stuffed with crumpled-up fast food bags. Set Designer Chelsea M. Warren and Prop Designer Sarah Burnham were very careful to balance an unkempt, junky look with the open space necessary for a man as large as Charlie to get around.
Charlie is played by veteran Chicago actor Dale Calandra in an extremely convincing fat suit. Charlie is the role of a lifetime for Dale Calandra. Charlie teaches writing online without appearing on a webcam, so that his students can not see his physical form. Charlie was married with one daughter before he could admit to himself that he was gay. Charlie started down the path of extreme weight gain after his long-time lover died. Charlie is a sad man and is, on balance, getting sadder over time. His peaks get less high and his valleys get deeper. He lives in the pit of despair and he is filling that pit with cortisol and food. Calandra plays Charlie with purpose, so much purpose that it takes a while for the story to unfold to where the audience can see why he could live with so much purpose and still let himself deteriorate to such a terrible state. Dale Calandra’s Charlie feels everything. In Calandra’s portrayal, Charlie has worried himself into a corner, eaten himself into a wheelchair, and nearly grieved himself into the grave. This is a monumental performance by Dale Calandra: expect his name on all the Best Actor lists when awards season comes around.
The show has a terrific ensemble, with a standout performance by Cheryl Graeff as Charlie’s friend/nurse/enabler Liz. Graeff plays Charlie’s friend like she is Valerie Harper, his nurse like she is Thelma Ritter, and his enabler like she is Colonel Sanders. Cheryl Graeff does a tender and cantankerous dance of trying to keep Charlie happy and healthy — which have become seemingly mutually exclusive.
Patricia Kane as Charlie’s estranged ex-wife Mary and Leah Karpel as Charlie and Mary’s daughter Ellie are burdened with looking at Charlie’s enormity through society’s eyes. Patricia Kane does a lot with very few lines and displays a modicum of sympathy. Leah Karpel takes a lot of lines that do not seem like they should be coming out of this teenage girl’s mouth and owns them, displaying a seething contempt for difference that speaks volumes about her character’s own innermost concept of self.
As Elder Thomas, Will Allan displays exponentially more doubt here than the typical Mormon teen on their mission, at times channeling a frazzled Gene Wilder. Will Allan is one of several terrific actors who broke big in TimeLine’s 2009 mega-hit production of The History Boys. Allan is excellent as Elder Thomas, but he is too old for the part and he looks too old for the part. He was excellent as, but too old to be playing, Billy in Remy Bumppo’s 2011 production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Allan is off to the Yale School of Drama this fall to pursue his MFA, so he may only have one or two more shows here in Chicago. Still, Casting Directors, Will Allan is a fine actor and a grown-ass man, so start casting him accordingly.
The overall effect of Victory Gardens’s production of The Whale is that Samuel D. Hunter’s hit-and-miss (but mostly hit) script is elevated by Joanie Shultz’s careful direction. In turn, Joanie Shultz’s direction is elevated by a dream ensemble, and that dream ensemble is led by Dale Calandra in a heart-wrenching, momentous performance. This production has a complicated relationship to the Ideal, but so does real life.
3 1/2 STARS
(“The Whale” runs through May 5 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000.)
The Whale production images by Michael Brosilow.