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Cygnet Theatre’s ‘The Whale’ dives into honesty

Craig Jorczak, Judy Bauerlein, Melissa Fernandes, Erin McIntosh and Andrew Oswald (front) in Cygnet Theatre’s ‘The Whale,’ directed by Shana Wride.
Craig Jorczak, Judy Bauerlein, Melissa Fernandes, Erin McIntosh and Andrew Oswald (front) in Cygnet Theatre’s ‘The Whale,’ directed by Shana Wride.
( / Ken Jacques)

“Any play that can take me by surprise or make me laugh and cry is an inviting play to work on,” said Shana Wride of “The Whale,” which she is directing at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. “Sam Hunter is a brilliant writer. This play is fascinating and unlike anything we’ve seen. Its humor and humanity has surprising aspects.”

“The Whale” revolves around Charlie (Andrew Oswald), a behemoth of a man who weighs more than 500 pounds and can’t stop eating, and is ready to end it all. But there is his daughter to think of, the words spoken by the Mormon missionary who visited to consider, and thoughts about sexual orientation — his own and those of others.

Wride said she auditioned 160 actors for the play with a sharp eye on who would play Charlie before giving the role to Oswald. The remaining cast includes Judy Bauerlein (Liz), Melissa Fernandes (Mary), Craig Jorczak (Elder Thomas), and Erin McIntosh (Ellie).

“Being a director is like being a teacher, boss or parent, it’s my job to help everyone get to where they need to be. Our Charlie is not an actor of size. That became an issue because many of the actors who came in were too thin. You couldn’t even add a padded suit to them that would make sense. So the audience will be expected to make a leap of faith here.”

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Rather than explaining to the actors all the different elements to these characters herself, Wride made a decision to invite medical experts in to talk to the cast. “I knew as a director and dramaturge and through my research, that I wanted outside information,” Wride said. “I called consultants who came in and spoke to me and the cast on every aspect of the play. I’d never done anything like this before. You can read articles and educate yourself, but this interaction was inspiring and invaluable. We had doctors, nurses, Mormons, psychologists and family members with morbidly obese relatives, so it was an opportunity for us to build a foundation on people who really understood these situations and that was exciting for me and the cast.”

Wride said at the heart of this story is “a man reaching out to his daughter to be sure she’s OK before he dies. We can all find empathy and our true voice through this story. Although we’re still in rehearsal, I’m starting to see the heart of the story rise to the top. When you see an actor or actors in the scene and the ball starts to drop and there’s a spark of connection to all the work we’ve been doing, that’s my favorite part of a play. Because theater is like nothing else, that rare moment can change from rehearsal to rehearsal because it’s not tape. It’s a live element where for one second everything lined up and something unique happened. Those are the moments I look for.”

Wride said she doesn’t see everyone leaving the theater with the same reactions.

“I hope each has his or her own personal experience,” she said. “I don’t think the play is trying to say, ‘here’s my message’ or what you should think or feel as a result. We’re trying to leave enough room for a personal experience so someone’s background will dictate how they feel about a 600-pound man, a gay character, God and religion, the choice to check out, be angry, and all the different things being discussed here.

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“Everyone in the audience is bringing their own filter and experience, and I don’t want to point a finger and say this is the solution. It’s more interesting for people to leave with their own reactions, so they can discuss it.”