Performed by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Starring John Kuntz
March 7 — April 5
Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts
Theater, by virtue of its intimacy, is meant to teach us something about ourselves and others. While The Whale carefully reveals the life of an overweight man, it does so by obscuring two traditionally ignored groups, young women and Mormons.
At first glimpse, Charlie (John Kuntz), an overweight man, seems disgusting. His house is filled with trash that overflows both sides of the stage. His sweatshirt is stained, and he suffers a possible heart attack after trying to masturbate. During the breaks between scenes, the audio technicians play sounds of Charlie’s belabored breathing.
Gradually, Charlie’s tragic situation is revealed. Charlie, a gay man, has no family. He was estranged from his wife and daughter after coming out. He found a loving partner Alan, but Alan starved himself to death after his Mormon family condemned him because of his sexuality. After this loss, Charlie began to put on weight, growing to be over 600 pounds and in danger of dying of heart failure.
Kuntz does a magnificent job of characterizing Charlie beyond his backstory. Charlie is sorry for being overweight, sorry for being a burden, sorry for everything. Kuntz highlights Charlie’s insecurity — he wants to be loved and is afraid of being a burden. Charlie truly wants to help his daughter become a better person, help his students become better writers, and find a purpose for the erstwhile Mormon missionary Elder Thomas.
Charlie is particularly sympathetic after seeing the abuse the other characters heap on him. His daughter Ellie calls him disgusting. Elder Thomas is repulsed by the fact that he’s gay and overweight, and even his friend Liz calls him worthless in a moment of anger.
The stigmatization of Charlie due to his weight is terrifying. He certainly has a responsibility to maintain his health, but he doesn’t deserve such cruel treatment for his physical appearance. The portrayal of his treatment does excellent job of highlighting society’s prejudices against overweight people and made me question my own preconceptions.
But this empathetic characterization of Charlie comes at a high cost. To beatify Charlie, playwright Samuel Hunter demonizes his daughter Ellie. She torments Charlie, telling him that he is disgusting at every possible moment. She’s just as mean to her mother and her classmates. But there’s no real reason for her hatred at all, and Ellie is quite unrealistic. Hunter gives her no discernible traits or motivation, other than the fact that she’s a “mean little girl.” It’s disappointing to see that a play with so much compassion for the overweight has no compassion for young women, who are already frequently marginalized in theater and popular culture.
Additionally, Mormons are seen as the root of evil of The Whale. Elder Thomas, a Mormon missionary, tries to convince Charlie that his partner Alan died because he loved Charlie more than God. Meanwhile, the play suggests Alan died because he couldn’t bear to be estranged from his strictly Mormon family and his idea of God because he was gay.
While I agree that Elder Thomas deserves the audience’s hate, I was annoyed by the cheapness of his characterization. From the Book of Mormon to the suspicion of Mitt Romney’s faith, it seems as though Mormonism has become a cheap shortcut for lazy playwrights and writers to demonize evangelical religion. The religion’s governing body certainly has a long way to improve its stance on same-sex relationships, but the Mormon people I know are certainly not as hateful or conservative as those portrayed in the play. Mormonism, like all other religions, has a spectrum from evangelical to liberal, and I wish I could see that portrayed in art as well. Especially in a play so intent on understanding difficult perspectives, it seems wrong to have such a stereotypical view of a religion.
The play is also melodramatic. Characters have random snippets of dialogue that are unconvincing. The end of the play is particularly histrionic; Charlie dies in the middle of a dialogue as he steps across the stage. Overall, this play still needs to develop the story around the characters rather than the idea of Charlie as a martyr.