In Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” at Cygnet Theatre, we meet Charlie (Andrew Oswald), a very smart man whose bad choices are compromising his life. He weighs more than 500 pounds and is bound to his couch, just waiting for that last breath.
Charlie teaches writing to students via the computer, and gets up only to shuffle his feet behind his walker to the bathroom.
His nurse and friend Liz (Judy Bauerlein) makes frequent visits to check his oxygen, maybe help him to the restroom and bring him some food, but it always turns into a battle when she yells at Charlie for not using his financial savings to change his fate.
Charlie looks at her with appreciation, but insists he’s saving the money for his daughter Ellie’s schooling, and asks Liz if she brought anything to eat. More enraged because Ellie has not come to see her dad since her parents divorced years ago, Liz rants again before she gives Charlie a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which he begins to devour.
When a stranger knocks on the door and is invited in, Charlie realizes that Elder Thomas (Craig Jorczak) is on a Mormon Mission. Charlie questions Thomas and talks about how life can mimic the Jonah and the Whale story, which confuses Thomas who cannot take his eyes off the mammoth man.
Charlie makes it clear he’s not a Mormon, but Thomas still decides to “save” him. When Liz shows up, she screams at Thomas, telling him not to talk to Charlie, and to leave and never return. Charlie explains the outburst has to do with her brother (and Charlie’s partner) Alan, who once attended Thomas’ church. Alan was bullied because he was a Mormon and gay, and he committed suicide. Thomas honors Charlie’s request to find out what really happened at the church to lead Alan to such a drastic measure.
When Ellie (Erin McIntosh) finally decides to visit her dad, he’s excited. She refuses to get near him and circles around the perimeter of the room like a lion waiting to pounce. She pours out years of wrath telling him of her disgust. Charlie is so happy to see Ellie, that his smiling face becomes an invisible shield deflecting her every harsh word. Ellie tells her dad the only reason she’s there is to get the money he’s been saving for her schooling before he dies and her mother gets hold of it.
Thomas shows up again and Ellie is intrigued by him, but gives him a hard time, too. Eventually it’s Charlie who changes Thomas’ life — Thomas does not change him.
At last ex-wife Mary (Melissa Fernandes) makes her first visit to Charlie in a long time, but only to keep him from giving Ellie the money. They spar and Charlie has several of his coughing and heart-clutching episodes, which scares everyone but only deepens their anger over the fact that he doesn’t take care of himself.
“The Whale” is a story that could have its audiences leaving depressed, but this special cast is able to convey the different intent behind every word written by Hunter. Jorczak makes us see that Thomas is a young man out of his element who needs to return home. In Bauerlein’s intensity as Liz caring for Charlie, we understand why she brings him the food he should not eat.
McIntosh is a standout as Ellie, whose cruelty to her father is rage that produces our sympathy for a girl who is obviously also in pain.
Fernandes’ Mary rants and raves until all the frustration leaves her body. She cuddles up to Charlie, lays her head on his shoulder, and a moment of pure love settles upon their faces.
Director Shana Wride was spot on when she said, “The humor and humanity in this play about real people has surprising aspects.”