Celebrating its 60th season, venerable Theatre Southwest, housed in a musty strip mall off Fondren Road, manages to open our eyes to the wonders of theater. You never know what surprise is in store. I've yet to see a creepier Pillowman or a classier Philadelphia Story. How about that wicked Albee rarity, Everything in the Garden, or the sublimely bizarre Wayside Motor Inn, or the incandescent, terrifying Bug that burrowed under our skin not too many seasons ago?
This season the company has struck gold with The Whale (2012), an off-Broadway multi-award winner from the young MacArthur “genius grant” fellow Samuel D. Hunter.
Hunter's play isn't genius, far from it, but it is ingenious and bizarrely intriguing. Except for its R-rated language, it could be a throwback to Inge (on a very good day), or maybe to some Thornton Wilder manuscript unearthed from that playwright's closet. No matter the F-bombs dropped like Sherman's siege of Atlanta, there's a definite '50s vibe to its gay theme, its family dynamics, its symbolic references to Melville and Whitman, its well-made play-ness.
Directed by Scott McWhirter, it's not perfectly produced – the pacing's askew and somewhat choppy; the performances drift in and out of focus – but, at the end, the total effect leaves you shaken and quietly moved. Maybe even tearful. There's cumulative power in this play, and that's good enough for me.
Charlie (Joseph Moore) is a blob, a 600-pound sack of flesh waiting for a coronary. He is a whale, a grotesque “monster,” eating himself to death. (Whoever is responsible for his “fat suit,” uncredited in the playbill, should be knighted.) Keenly perceptive, thoroughly sympathetic, he teaches writing on the Internet to students who are bored, lazy and stupid. He yearns to improve their writing, help them express themselves, make them “honest.” They answer him with yawns and insults.
His Idaho apartment is strewn with empty KFC cartons, crumpled Oreo packages, Big Gulp containers. The trash cans overflow with the greasy detritus of fast food. John W. Stevens's set design is triumphantly tacky. In a splendid touch, there's a piece of lumber under the sofa cushions to support Charlie's tonnage. He's so huge and sick he can barely move. His breathing is labored; his sweatsuit, bursting at the seams, is stained with sweat. His swollen feet look like prehistoric fins. He's a mess and doesn't give a damn. The end is near, and there's only time for truth.
The reason he's let himself inflate into a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon will be explained by play's end – all too tidily, perhaps – but Moore, in a soft and decent performance, keeps us mesmerized up through the crushing apotheosis.
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Charlie's life isn't entirely empty. There's best friend Liz (Pamela Pancratz), a nurse, and sister of Charlie's dead lover, Alan. She pleads for him to go to the hospital, yet stuffs him with meatball heroes and fried chicken. She loves and enables him. There's former wife Mary (Melissa J. Mayo), who hasn't forgiven Charlie for abandoning her for a man, forcing her to raise their daughter by herself. There's young Elder Thomas (Matt Prideaux, delightfully obtuse), a Mormon on his Mission, who happens to ring the wrong doorbell at the right time.
References to Melville's leviathan and Jonah's biblical swallower swirl through Hunter's play a bit too pointedly, but they're given aural lift by sound man McWhirter, who envelops us in a seascape of crashing surf. The finale is quite affecting.
“People are incapable of not caring,” chants the empathetic zeppelin on the couch; “people are amazing.” Well, maybe. Here, except for Charlie, they're rather mundane and predictable. Charlie's size is prodigious. No one else onstage can match his big fat heart.
The Whale continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. February 26. Through March 11. Theatre Southwest, 8944A Clarkcrest. For information, call 713-661-9505 or visit theatresouthwest.org. $14 to $18.