It is tempting to think the whale of Samuel D. Hunter’s play is the morbidly obese Charlie. Charlie (played with humor, sensitivity, and a whole lot of padding by Dale Calandra) has consumed so many of his feelings that he needs assistance just to leave his couch. But things are not so simple in this wonderfully directed (Joanie Schultz) and realized drama. For Charlie is a big fan of Moby Dick essays and when it comes to naming whales, well there are more than a few candidates. Could it be the Mormon missionary with a secret? Maybe it is Charlie’s daughter Ellie who seems to love nothing more than inflicting emotional pain. For what it is worth, I think the whale embodies truth and Charlie is actually Ahab. Or something like that. What I do know is that this play has more layers than a rich man’s wedding cake.
The plot is deceptively simple. Grief over his dead boyfriend and fast food binges have done a number on Charlie's heart. Liz (Cheryl Graeff), his friend and nurse, cares for him as best she can while Charlie works as on-line English instructor where he steadily implores his students to express themselves as honestly as they can. One day, in-between near fatal heart episodes, a Mormon missionary comes by and helps save Charlie’s life. Charlie, as possibly a favor to the young man, allows this missionary to attend to his spiritual needs. Meanwhile he also reaches out to his daughter, Ellie, whom he has not been in direct contact with for fifteen years. Ellie really wants nothing to do with him but then starts coming by after being promised large sums of cash and a passing English grade. There is much, much more to this tale including an exploration of faith and its sometimes repressive nature. The funny and unpredictable is represented too and there are even some good stoner moments worthy of a few laughs. The acting is also universally superior throughout.
The playwright Samuel D. Hunter, an Idaho native and now an ensemble member of Victory Gardens, has two plays running in Chicago. A Permanent Image (presented by Live Wire and playing at the Storefront Theater) begins with death and ends somewhere else. This play begins near death and there is little doubt where the play will ultimately take go. But unlike the first play, this one left me hopeful and certain that one can always find meaning and purpose in life. Life and its actors might not always be pretty, but in Samuel’s hands it is impossible to look away.
Bottom Line: The Whale is highly recommended and is playing at Victory Gardens (2433 N. Lincoln) through May 5th. To purchase tickets, click here: victorygardens.org or call (773) 871-3000. For more theater reviews, go to www.theaterinchicago.com.
Photos presented by Victory Gardens