Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Move over Moby, there’s a new addition to literary tales involving whales
by Joel Beers
Like many actors, Peter Hilton has a list of dream roles. He’s played two–Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and Lee from “True West” – and eventually he’ll tackle a certain demon barber of Fleet Street.
Obviously, Hilton isn’t afraid of playing big characters, whether in stature (John Steinbeck’s intellectually challenged but physically imposing Lenny); temperament (Sam Shepherd’s Lee); or throat-slitting ambition (Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”)
But none compare to the scale of Charlie, the protagonist of Samuel Hunter’s 2012 play “The Whale,” which opens Sept. 2 at the Costa Mesa Playhouse–at the
same time the film version starring Brendan Fraser is premiering at the Venice Film Festival.
We’re talking a literal scale. According to Hunter’s character notes, Charlie weighs around 600 pounds, or roughly double the mass of what is considered “morbidly obese” for an American male (100 pounds heavier than what a typical man in his 40s weighs, which is 200 pounds, according to the CDC).
He’s reached that weight because Charlie wants to die, and his exit strategy is to eat his way there.
He’s suffering from congestive heart failure. What little breath remains escapes in tortured wheezes. Standing up is scaling his own private Mt. Everest. And he refuses to go to a hospital, choosing to stay rooted to his sofa in his dilapidated apartment in a small town in southern Idaho, surrounded by mounds of half-empty and empty disposable food containers bearing mute witness to his gastronomical hari-kari.
But while his death wish is apparent, Charlie is determined in whatever time he has left to connect with those he thinks need it. That includes the group of expository writing students he tutors online and who have never seen him, as well as his daughter, Ellie, who has just accepted his offer to see him for the first time, 15 years after the day Charlie left her and her mother to live with the man he had fallen in love with–and whose death after starving himself launched Charlie’s opposite use of food.
Reaching students virtually who aren’t that motivated to begin with is difficult, but Charlie’s goal with Ellie seems impossible: convincing a smart quick-witted 17-year-old that there's more to life than hating (she runs what she calls a “trash site,” on the internet, where she posts pictures of her acquaintances, as well as her mother, and talks about how much she hates them). And he plans on using an essay she wrote four years earlier to get her moving out of the hate zone.
The topic of the essay? Herman Melville’s novel, “Moby Dick.”
The play’s other three characters all feel the need to protect, or save, Charlie. A young Mormon missionary needs to save Charlie’s soul in part to prove his own faith. Liz, Charlie’s nurse and brother of his former lover, needs to keep Charlie’s heart from exploding, in part because she wasn’t able to save her brother. Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife, needs to protect Charlie from what she feels is a greater threat than eternal damnation or death-by-food: their daughter.
Though they all have different reasons, it’s Charlie that is the throughline. On one hand, that means Charlie’s social circle has greatly expanded. On the other hand, he’s still going to die.
If it all sounds heavy and so terribly sad, well there are elements of that in “The Whale.” But Hunter, one of the most prolific and produced American playwrights of the past 15 years, is too talented to leave it at that. Director Michael Serna, who also doubles as Costa Mesa Playhouse’s artistic director, said what drew him to the play, which he saw in its first off-Broadway production in 2012, was how deeply moving it was, but also Hunter’s use of humor, albeit dark humor, and how he was able to weave so many multi-layered strands into a piece so small in scope (five characters, one locale).
He was also drawn to the challenge of staging it, not only the challenge that everything visually revolves around an actor made to look like he weighs 600 pounds who rarely rises from his couch, but also that Hunter doesn’t spend much time trying to get the audience to like any of his characters.
“This is definitely a difficult play in that (the subject matter) isn’t exactly a pick-me-up,” Serna said. “And I think there are a lot of potential traps in it. Hunter presents on the surface some very unlikeable people. They judge each other by a lot of things, there is a bitchy kid, they’re ultra-religious (or hate organized religion), or they’re eating themselves to death. And Hunter shoves that in our faces at first and makes us work out of that to find some understanding as to why these people are the way they are, how they got here. And I think the genius of this play is also the challenge as a director, in that if you can pull all that back and still convey that sense of how important it is for this man at this point in his life to connect with his daughter...l think there is something powerful there.”
Serna said it took about 10 years for “The Whale” to marinate before he chose to direct it; it didn’t take that long to find Charlie. He has worked with Hilton often in the past and knew his ability to “build a character organically, one that is authentic and compelling, even if he barely moves from that couch the entire play.”
Hilton, who said he’d never heard of the play before Serna asked him to read it, was intrigued by Charlie, particularly in how his relationships with the other characters are so different but equally essential.
But he was hesitant in accepting the role.
“I am not a small person,” Hilton said, “and while my journey hasn’t been in any way similar to Charlie’s, I have had depression where I would treat it with food and I understand what it’s like to struggle with weight and how when you’re somewhere like the beach you kind of stick out.”
Hilton’s fiancé was particularly concerned that even though Hilton doesn’t come close to Charlie’s mass in real life, donning a fat suit in order to bulk up to play someone whose weight is so integral to the character might “strike a nerve” in Hilton.
But the more Hilton dove into the play, the more he started to understand the human Charlie beneath all that skin. And the more he started realizing the strength of a character who seems, on the surface, so weak, as well as the dignity in a character that many would see as living a most undignified life in its final days.
To Hilton, Charlie embodies the sense that “it’s never too late to try to fix what’s broken, or discover new ways to challenge your thinking. He’s an educator and highly intelligent (and) who doesn’t just accept things, and (he) challenges others to do the same.”
The title of “The Whale” is obviously a reference to Charlie’s mass. But two other whales are in the room of this play: the aforementioned Moby Dick, and the whale that swallows the prophet Jonah for three days in the Book of Jonah. Both are frequently alluded to and their stories play critical parts in this story. But both stories are also literary canon, one the first, and maybe only, Great American Novel, the other guest-starring God, albeit the mean Old Testament God with the nasty temper. Each are big epic sagas filled with symbolism and metaphor and open to all kinds of interpretation.
But other than Charlie’s weight, there is nothing big about “The Whale.” These are small people leading small lives in a small town. Like most of us, they are not the kind of people that plays are written about. They are not that interesting, or important, their stories too small.
So Hunter name-dropping those two stories in his Whale must be a shameless attempt to bank on their pedigree to boost his story’s literary cred, right?
Maybe. But consider this: every character in “The Whale,” in their own way, is struggling to make sense of something traumatic that has happened, or is happening. They are looking for meaning, they need a purpose. And what does Moby Dick give Captain Ahab? A pretty clear purpose. And just how did Jonah wind up in the belly of that whale for three days? Wasn’t it because he denied his purpose, which was to prophesize the word of his God?
Encountering their whales are life-changing events for Ahab and Jonah, either giving them a purpose or clarifying one. The purposes sought by the characters in “The Whale” may not be as thrilling and adventurous (or deranged) and it’s debatable whether any of them will be realized, but this much isn’t: it is through their encounters with their whale, Charlie, that the notion of finding that purpose becomes a possibility.
“This is a small play about small lives,” Serna says. “But those lives are huge to those people. And I think on some level Hunter is trying to help us gain a better understanding that, no, not all lives are wonderful and monumental, but they have value as well.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Location: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa.
Run dates/curtain times: Sept. 6-Sept. 25. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m; Sun., 2 p.m. Also Thurs., Sept,. 15, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20 - $22; Sept. 15 is pay-what-you-will.
Suitability: Ages six and up
Information: 949-650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com