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Fatties are usually comedy gold. Who doesn’t cackle at a balloon-shaped clown shoving pie into his maw or being knocked down on his jiggly, bulbous haunches? But when the lights come up on Charlie (Shuler Hensley), the 600-pound focus of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, laughter is not your reaction. Neither is gagging—although this greasy, unshaved heffalump on a caved-in couch, squeezed into perspiration-caked sweats, is unquestionably disgusting. Charlie is a cellulite monument to guilt and shame, and there’s nothing funny about that.
In fact, The Whale is tragedy in a minor key, about a man torn between flesh and spirit. From the start, we know it won’t end with reality-TV gastric surgery and rehab. Charlie’s unofficial caregiver and enabler, nurse Liz (Cassie Beck), delivers a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. Repeated references to Moby Dick add an air of fateful doom. Although he’s a world-class denier of the truth, Charlie is spurred to close accounts before judgment day. That includes reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), whom he abandoned, along with her mother, upon realizing he was gay. Ellie has grown into a cruel teen, taunting her morbidly obese father and anyone else drawn into his orbit, which includes a wayward Mormon missionary (Cory Michael Smith).
Hunter’s humane morality tale, staged with hushed starkness by Davis McCallum, may lean too hard on its cetacean symbols, but the dialogue is sharp and often funny, and Hensley is harrowingly good. Packed into a convincing, globular fat suit, wheezing his lines and waddling, agonized, to and from the bathroom, Hensley looks appalling, but he endows Charlie with wit and even dignity. He’s a confused but loving creature who’s spent a lifetime absorbing the contempt and weakness of others—not just fatal amounts of food.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote