Charlie is so fat that he eats, works and sleeps on his couch, a stained horror of abused upholstery. Sitting atop stacks of old books, the couch sags amid mounds of fast-food containers, soda cans, candy wrappers, chip bags — a rotting reliquary waiting for Charlie to wheeze his last wheeze. Sugar-dusted doughnuts and a student’s essay about Moby-Dick (what else?) are Charlie’s main sources of sustenance in The Whale, the grotesquely beautiful and moving 2012 Samuel D. Hunter play now winding up its local premiere by L.I.P. Service Productions at Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch.
The most compelling reason to see it is actor Jason Leyva, simply stunning as Charlie, the apartment-bound recluse who has spent 15 years eating himself nearly to death. Estimating his weight as 550 to 600 pounds — “I let it get out of control, that’s all,” he says, though there is more to it than that — Charlie earns slim paychecks teaching writing in online community college courses. Students can’t see him. In fact, no one sees Charlie unless he invites them into his food-and-garbage strewn living room.
Our first look at Charlie is startling. To play him, Leyva, who weighs about 150 pounds in real life, wears a neck-to-padded-ankle fat suit underneath a gargantuan gray sweatshirt and stretchy black pants. With his scraggly beard and shoulder-length graying hair, he looks, sounds and moves like an obese person who’s given up personal maintenance. Every breath is a death rattle and every step a struggle.
Think about it — there just aren’t many plays about fat people. There aren’t even many fat actors anymore and certainly few fat actresses. (Around here, all our local professional actors seem to have day jobs as personal trainers or Beachbody coaches. They’re a pretty buff bunch.)
The Whale forces us into an unpleasant confrontation, not just a long look at an extremely fat man but at a troubled one who doesn’t want to be seen: the double taboo as dramatic device.
Four people visit Charlie in the two acts of The Whale. First is a nervous 19-year-old Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (R. Andrew Aguilar, a decade too old for the part). Then comes Charlie’s longtime friend and caretaker Liz (Amy Cave), a nurse who warns him that his blood pressure is dangerously high even as she supplies him with fried chicken and meatball subs. Ellie (the exquisitely natural Taylor Donnelson) is the 17-year-old daughter Charlie hasn’t seen since she was 2. Her first reaction to seeing her father is “you’re disgusting … just being around you is disgusting,” and it’s hard to disagree. The final guest is Charlie’s ex-wife, Ellie’s mother Mary (Leslie Boren), angry, unsympathetic and as addicted to booze as Charlie is to carbs.
What transpires among these characters is predictable. They all know Charlie is about to die (he refuses medical intervention) so there will be arguments and there will be reconciliations. What Hunter does to draw us into his play is let us see Charlie’s misery from his point of view and then turn it around to see how the other characters, and really anyone, can become mired in toxic emotions. Charlie wears his loneliness visibly in rolls of flab so massive he can’t get clean (watching the play in the close environs of this small theater, you can almost smell him). The others internalize their pain. Like those hoarders on reality TV shows who trace obsessive behaviors back to a moment of trauma, Charlie reveals that his overeating was spurred by the death of the man he loved. One by one, we learn why all of the characters are broken.
The playwright, who grew up in Idaho, where The Whale is set, was barely past 30 when this play debuted Off-Broadway a few years ago, winning loads of awards. (Hunter is still just in his mid-30s. His latest, Clarkston, will get its world premiere in December at Dallas Theater Center.) The Whale is not a perfect play. Dialogue for the teenager, Ellie, rings truer than what he’s written for the older women. And when he takes the focus off Charlie for a pot-smoking scene between Ellie and the Mormon guy, it’s just to get in some blasts at the Mormon religion. References to Moby-Dick and the Bible parable of Jonah land as such trite metaphors, they’d get points deducted in a writing class.
In Charlie, though, Hunter has created a strange and complicated character, as challenging for an actor as playing the Elephant Man. More than a few critics have compared Charlie to Winnie, the woman buried up to her neck in soil for an epic monologue in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Playing the lead in The Whale, Jason Leyva has to remain mostly immobile, marooned on that couch. (Scenery is by Danny Macchietto, who also directed.) With all but his head, hands and feet encased in that fat suit, Leyva uses his voice and his expressive eyes to convey the depth of his character’s shame and his determination to live long enough to connect with his daughter.
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Leyva’s most agile and able acting partner is young Donnelson, a regular at the Fun House youth theater in Plano. As Ellie, she delivers the eye rolls and dismissive gestures of an angry girl trying hard to stay tough. She also brings considerable subtlety to her performance. Donnelson is the real deal as an actor and, slim as a reed, she’s the visual opposite of Levya’s character.
If only the other three members of this cast were up to that level, but they’re not and obviously so. It’s odd, too, that for a small audience and on a small stage, they’re all wearing head mics, sending the actors’ voices into the air above the seats. This quiet play doesn’t need artificial amplification. It might need an exterminating service, though. On the night reviewed, a big cockroach crawled around the onstage trash. An extra dose of discomfiting grossness in a play already thick with it.
The Whale continues through October 24 at Firehouse Theatre, 2535 Valley View Lane, Farmers Branch. Tickets $15 at the door or lipserviceproductions.info.
Jason Leyva (in fat suit) and Amy Cave share a couch and some sad truths in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at The Firehouse Theatre.