Brilliant theater is not always fun.
From Arthur Miller’s unflinching Death of a Salesman to Peter Shaefer’s brutal Equus, the best playwrights and plays succeed because they depress, rattle, upset and stun us with stories that are heartrending, unsettling and just plain unpleasant. But of course, life is sometimes unpleasant, and theater, simply put, is a reflection of life—good, bad and ugly.
Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, a critical hit last year in New York, serves up a fearlessly blunt and bitter (but strangely compassionate) slice of life that is beautifully written, emotionally knotty, and anything but traditionally “enjoyable.” Now running at Marin Theatre Company, directed with documentary straightforwardness by Jasson Minadakis, The Whale may be the best new play I’ve seen this year—yet I cannot think of another show that I have felt more assaulted and challenged by.
Charlie (a remarkable performance by Nicholas Pelczar) is a 600-pound shut-in, an English teacher with a death wish he is close to accomplishing. Charlie (brought to life with an impressive body-sized prosthetic), rarely moves from his shabby couch, still grieving the absence of his lover, who, ironically, starved himself to death 10 years ago. With a heart that barely functions to keep him breathing, Charlie somehow manages to see the best in others while abandoning all hope and faith in himself.
Taking place over the last days of Charlie’s life—it’s Death of a Fat Man—the play’s title comes from a student’s essay about Moby Dick, coupled with a few references to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. As Charlie resists the loving encouragement of his best friend Liz (Liz Sklar), he finds himself reaching out to two unlikely newcomers: a troubled young Mormon missionary (Adam Magill, all gangly zeal) and Ellie (Cristina Oeschger), Charlie’s deeply resentful teenage daughter, who hasn’t seen her father since she was two.
Ellie, it must be stated, is easily the most hateful, angry, cruel and unlikable character I have seen portrayed onstage in recent memory. She hates everyone and everything, especially Charlie, who still, somehow, loves her and sees her as “amazing.”
And that’s one of the many miracles of Hunter’s ingenious drama. Through Charlie’s insistence, we eventually start trying, cautiously, to somehow see what Charlie sees in this sociopathic monster. And there is the definition of brilliant theater: it allows us to enter the lives of others so deeply we begin to see the world—good, bad or ugly—through their eyes. It’s not fun, but it’s well worth the pain.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★