The Whale at Victory Gardens Theater | Theater review

Samuel D. Hunter's graceful, heartfelt drama is sized just right for director Joanie Schultz and a tremendous cast.

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  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    Dale Calandra and Cheryl Graeff in The Whale at Victory Gardens Theater

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    Dale Calandra and Leah Karpel in The Whale at Victory Gardens Theater

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    Dale Calandra, Leah Karpel and Will Allan in The Whale at Victory Gardens Theater

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    Leah Karpel and Will Allan in The Whale at Victory Gardens Theater

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Dale Calandra and Cheryl Graeff in The Whale at Victory Gardens Theater

Disgust is frequently discussed in Samuel D. Hunter's 2012 play, which centers on Charlie (Dale Calandra), a housebound, 600-pound sad sack of flesh. No one is more disgusted by Charlie's morbid obesity than himself; since the death of his boyfriend some years earlier, he seems to have consciously decided to eat himself to death.


Beached on a couch that's necessarily reinforced with cinder blocks, Charlie makes a living doing online essay coaching for ungrateful students who hear but don't see him, and awaits visits from his nurse-slash-enabler, Liz (Cheryl Graeff). When she clocks his blood pressure at an alarming 238 over 134 after a frightening bout of chest pain, Charlie sees the end coming—meaning it's time to reconnect with the teenage daughter he hasn't seen in 15 years.


That daughter, Ellie (Leah Karpel), turns out to be angry, friendless and reflexively cruel to everyone around her, including Charlie, Liz and an off-course Mormon missionary (Will Allan) who's drawn into the fray, allowing us an outsider's perspective on this complicated little family. Hunter, a new member of Victory Gardens' playwrights' ensemble, may lean a bit too heavily on his chosen symbol (both Moby-Dick and the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale play key roles in the plotting), but he writes with an admirable and infectious empathy for his characters' small-town toils and traumas.


That depth of feeling is matched by director Joanie Schultz and her crackerjack cast. Schultz, who's made a growing reputation on searing, tightly packed dramas on the city's smaller stages, makes her Victory Gardens debut a new height of efficiently heartwrenching storytelling. Karpel skillfully layers Ellie's matter-of-fact malevolence with an undercurrent of loneliness, while Allan imbues the well-meaning Elder Thomas with a relatable, grasping desire to make a difference.


Calandra, encased in an impressive fat suit, is astounding as Charlie, whose girth contains a mass of contradictions: an unwavering positivity about everything but himself, a graceful kind of dignity at odds with a maddening tendency to apologize for his very existence, an insistence that his daughter not give up even as he models the opposite. Honest, warm and quietly provocative, The Whale is a real killer.


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