The Whale

MTC’s Season Opens Big

Rating: ★★★★☆

Young playwright  Samuel D. Hunter is receiving a lot of attention these days, especially since he’s been awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” Marin Theatre Company is opening its 2014-15 season with Hunter’s drama, “The Whale.”  Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis first saw the play in 2011 and  was “immediately enraptured” with it. Minadakis directed the present production.

According to program notes, Hunter conceived the idea for this work while teaching expository English to freshmen at Rutgers. He wanted “The Whale” to be about “connection and empathy,” and made its central character, Charlie, a morbidly obese man whose own connection to others is mostly online, where he teaches essay writing.

Charlie’s personal connection is through Liz, a character from his past who seems to be as needy as he is. Liz is a nurse, yet she alternately berates Charlie and brings him quantities of junk food, kicking the residual trash into a growing monument in the corner.

Because he can’t get up at all without his walker, Charlie leaves his door unlocked. His gasping respiratory attack calls in a visitor, a Mormon missionary. Elder Thomas is nineteen years old and wants to share his LDS news with Charlie, but is surprised to find that he already knows  much of it. When Liz shows up, she gets combative with the young man; Liz too knows a lot about Mormonism, all of it negative.

Charlie hopes to reunite with his teenage daughter, Ellie, from whom he’s been estranged since his divorce. She comes around the next day, having time off from school because she’s on suspension. Ellie is a sour and sullen kid whose own mother describes her as “evil,” but Charlie’s besotted with her. He makes a deal to help Ellie with her essays ( i.e. write them ) and even pay for her time; he’s been saving up for just this opportunity.

Two more characters inhabit Charlie’s world –Mary, his ex-wife, and Alan, his dead boyfriend who’s very much a presence. Charlie’s love for Alan broke up his marriage.  Liz, Ellie and Elder Thomas have secret lives too, but Charlie is the only addict.

Addiction has been the stuff of drama and literature for a long time, but this seems to be the first one about food. The Mexican man who held the title of “World’s Heaviest Man” died this spring at 867 pounds, only 48 years old. Before Hunter’s play even begins, Michael Lochner’s set reveals the severity of Charlie’s condition by showing the pigpen where he lives.

Then there’s the ongoing metaphor of the whale itself, which could be the Moby Dick in a student essay, a “poor, dumb animal that doesn’t know it’s being hunted,” or, as in the story of Jonah, the agent of God.

“The Whale” is not easy on the audience. It’s two intense hours without intermission, much it blacked out in scene changes and accompanied by the sound of roaring surf. Some scenes seem repetitive. The acting , however, is superb.

As Charlie, Nicholas Pelczar delivers his lines in gasps and wheezes from a seated position, and Pelczar accomplishes his character so fully, it is almost shocking to see him stand and walk for his curtain call. Liz Sklar reveals a tightly-wound Liz, desperate and furious, especially powerful in a scene where she gives Charlie the Heimlich maneuver. Adam Magill’s Elder Thomas is the most likeable and the most surprising, while surly teen Ellie is played by Cristina Oeschger, a real Bay Area high school senior. Michelle Maxon plays Ellie’s weary mom, Mary, who manages a tender memory with her now-enormous  ex, Charlie.

Christine Crook’s “fat suit” design for Charlie seems entirely real, as does Chris Houston’s engulfing soundscape.

“The Whale” will play at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley every day but Monday through October 25. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m., Wednesdays are at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are priced between $35 and $48, with special rates available. For complete information, see  or call the box office, (415) 388-5208.