Idaho borders no ocean. But the apartment where Charlie (Shuler Hensley) lives and works, as an online tutor in English comp, is haunted, day and night, by the sound of crashing waves. An eighth grader’s essay on Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale is one of Charlie’s pet preoccupations. And another theme that has shaped his life turns out to be the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, on which Melville’s hero, Ishmael, hears a sermon early in the novel.
The whale imagery and its ghostly waves fit Charlie, the tragic hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s vibrant, provocative new play, The Whale (Playwrights Horizons). Charlie himself is something of a whale. Weighing in at over 550 pounds, sleeping (and mostly living) on his couch because he can barely make his way into his bedroom, Charlie has been slowly eating himself to death for a dozen years, like a self-swallowing Jonah, or an Ahab who is the target of his own vengeance. His obvious love of literature, and of teaching, have become almost irrelevant, elements of a recurring dream that was meaningful back before Charlie’s systematic move toward self-destruction.
Life, however, doesn’t intend to give Charlie up without a struggle. His willed escape into whaledom has a backstory, involving the death of his lover, who, guilt-racked by his lapsing from the Mormon church, starved himself into pneumonia and then into extinction. Charlie’s gorging suggests, simultaneously, a frantic attempt to stave off such a disappearance and a funhouse-mirror reflection of it. And like all backstories, it has supporting roles: The guilt-ridden lover was preceded in Charlie’s life by a wife, Mary (Tasha Lawrence), with whom he produced a daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), now 17. That they don’t contact Charlie doesn’t mean they don’t care about him. Meanwhile, Liz (Cassie Beck), a local nurse, cares for him, for reasons having to do with a lapsed-Mormon backstory of her own.
Into this vortex of unspoken tensions, a young Mormon missionary, who calls himself Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), wanders, as unsuspectingly as Ishmael wandered into Father Mapple’s chapel. But his mission, like Charlie’s struggle, turns out to have hidden issues behind it, involving similar Jonah-like issues of escape and confrontation. Maybe we all have such issues, and instinctively move, usually in the wrong direction, to settle them ourselves. And maybe other people, however hostile or interfering they seem, however desperate their own needs, can’t help trying to steer us right. “People,” Charlie remarks, late in his agonizing self-struggle, “are incapable of not caring. People are amazing.” Not that their caring always helps.
The sharp-eared skill and sensitivity with which Hunter explores his thickly layered material are matched by his fair-mindedness. Limited, angry, perplexed, divided, his characters all speak in their own rhythms, and act out of their own deep needs. Though his story’s love and grieving, and its arguments over faith, could have taken place in any decade, his telling of it lives in the specifics of our own time. Charlie has given up teaching face to face (he met his lover when the latter was his student), and now knows his students only by their screen names, just as he communicates with his ex-wife only by e-mail. To reach the daughter he hasn’t seen in 15 years, he looks up her cell phone number on Facebook. Our electronic world calls his entire vocation into question: Where’s the joy in teaching literature to students who write that The Great Gatsby “wasn’t so great. LOL.”?
Apart from some needlessly dressy between-scenes business, including the highlighting of what looks like an abstract whale sculpture stage left, Davis McCallum’s production handles Hunter’s text with detailed clarity and devotion, getting uniformly strong performances from his five-person cast. De Courcy, hostile energy spilling from her contained exterior, makes a particularly striking impression. Most of all, though, The Whale depends on Hensley. Limited in movement, with his naturally big body encased (it must be agony for him) in Jessica Pabst’s gigantically padded costume, he establishes a human presence within the grotesque bulk so firmly that even his minutest shift of vocal color becomes an emotional revelation.