The Whale Theatre Review – This “Whale” Swims into the Dark Realms of Guilt

Charlie (Matthew Arkin) has a moment of peace with his nurse Liz (Blake Lindsley)

(Costa Mesa, CA) March, 2013 – Guilt has a frightening ability to destroy a human being in one of two methods: it could either slowly eat at a person’s soul like a cancer where there is nothing left but a decaying husk, or guilt can fill that person with such self-hatred, malice, and resentment that an “explosion” occurs, not only annihilating that person, but also the people connected to this individual. Guilt possesses an unsettling ripple effect that is ultimately destructive to all involved. There is one cure for guilt and that is redemption. But a guilt-ridden person who seeks redemption will face many trials, trials that are patiently revealed in the South Coast Repertory’s production of The Whale. Courtesy of playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s layered dialogue and especially Matthew Arkin’s phenomenal lead performance, The Whale is a careful exploration of how redemption is sought and earned.  

Ellie (Helen Sadler) tempts Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner)

Charlie (Matthew Arkin) is a man filled with contradictions. He is an energetic optimist and yet for many years he has been eating and gaining up to almost 600 pounds in order to mask his grief over the loss of his life partner Alan. As time goes on, Charlie has been allowing his guilt to slowly build inside his rotund body where it is obvious that he is committing suicide, much to the chagrin of his nurse Liz (Blake Lindsley). When his health deteriorates to where he has only days to live, he decides to reunite with his daughter Ellie (a volatile performance by Helen Sadler), who he left fifteen years ago---along with his wife, Mary (Jennifer Christopher)---in order to pursue his relationship with Alan. And it’s Charlie’s quest for redemption and reconnection with Ellie, as well as meeting a young Mormon missionary names Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner), that he discovers how the selfishness of his past can be ultimately forgiven.

Since this one hour and forty minute play contains no intermission, pacing is paramount. Two factors play important roles in maintaining the audience’s attention: Martin Benson’s deft direction and playwright Hunter’s use of short scenes interspersed with blackouts to help move the production at a fluidic speed without it being rushed. And setting this play in the smaller Julianne Argyros Stage instead of the Segerstrom Stage is a perfect way to add to the intimacy of the story. In terms of technical achievement, the true stars are Kevin Haney’s prosthetic design of Arkin’s make-up and Angela Balogh Calin's design of the fat body suit, all of which cover and hug the artist with incredible flawlessness.

Liz (Blake Lindsley) confronts Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner)

But the “man behind the suit” brings this prosthetic effect to life in more ways in one, almost single handedly driving this entire play at full speed. Arkin indicated in an interview that Charlie was one of the most challenging roles he has ever played, both emotionally and physically. Arkin’s ability to “flesh out” Charlie (no pun intended) is a monumental feat of theatrical craftsmanship and character dimensionality. Arkin disappears into the physicality of Charlie every time he breathes with a painful gasp or when he has to move with his walker. His adaptability with the fat body suit is absolutely profound; the most heartbreaking is when he tries to rise from the sofa and his face turns beet red from the effort. Arkin’s deteriorating physicality is matched by his emotional investment in Charlie as he combines sympathy, regret, and a little dose of optimism for his daughter’s future. But the most revealing facet about Charlie’s guilt comes in a powerful scene between him and Jennifer Christopher, most notably, when Mary barks out, “The only reason you married me in the first place was to have a kid. I know that.” Following that statement is a deathly pause between both artists, and then Arkin’s face transforms, turning sallow with increased self loathing, until he finally discovers the selfishness that fueled his past actions. It’s a layered, delicately nuanced performance by Arkin, one of the best portrayals at South Coast Repertory this 2012/2013 Season.  

Mary (Jennifer Christopher) tries to make peace with Charlie (Matthew Arkin)

But Arkin’s bravura performance doesn’t overshadow his co-stars. Besides Christopher’s Mary (whose dynamic portrayal is laced with sorrow and alcoholic rage), Lindsley’s Liz is an earnest, desperate woman trying to save one of the closest friends she has, especially when she reveals later in the play why her connection to Charlie is so strong. But the standout supporting performance is Fenner’s endearingly innocent Elder Thomas. Fenner wisely avoids the stereotype of a Mormon missionary by harnessing the character’s naïveté, compassion, self-deprecating humor, and especially the conflict he feels about the hypocrisy he has seen from many of his fellow Mormons. Fenner shows incredible passion to help Charlie. Although he initially tries to convert him in the beginning of the play, as time goes on, Fenner’s desire to evangelize is subtly replaced with simple empathy to save Charlie’s life and his soul. It becomes a mission for Thomas not to convert Charlie to becoming a Mormon, but to have Charlie embrace God by simply forgiving himself and to prevent his self destruction. But Fenner expertly shows that although Thomas’s intentions are good, his methodologies are too abrupt and painful. This realization is shown beautifully by Fenner, adding to the talented cast and the production of The Whale.

The Whale opened March 10 through March 31, 2013

South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage

655 Town Center Drive,

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Scott Brinegar

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