A 600-pound man sits on his couch. He has just found out he will likely die within the week. This is a story about severing ties with loved ones and a man’s desire to gain forgiveness — as long as death doesn’t catch him first.
This weekend, Basement Arts presents Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,” a story of a morbidly obese man, Charlie, who has spent the past few years eating his way to death. After a warning that his time is running out, he works to mend his broken family relationships and redeem himself in his final days.
In 2012, the play first appeared off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons at the Peter J. Sharp Theatre. It later earned the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Play in 2013.
“It’s about someone who is dying, recognizes he is dying and is fighting to redeem himself before it happens,” said director Madeline Rouverol, a senior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “It’s a character whose journey is all about self-redemption.”
The dynamic cast of “The Whale” offers many different types of personalities to the story. Charlie, played by SMTD senior Luke Jackson, wants to reconnect with his daughter Ellie, played by SMTD senior Kay Kelley, but recognizes she is full of rage and bitterness towards him. Charlie’s fears extend beyond his initial shock of dying and move into a new realm as he considers how he will be remembered if he doesn’t fix these relationships. Ultimately, he cannot accept dying in a dishonorable way.
“Through this willful self-negligence, he is eating himself to death,” Rouverol said. “In a lot of ways, he is not attached to being alive anymore.”
Liz, played by SMTD senior Emma Boyden, is one of Charlie’s best friends and provides a lot of support for him, both as a nurse and as a friend. Tensions arise between Liz’s professed atheism and the Mormonism of another character, Elder Thomas. Played by SMTD sophomore Liam Allen, Elder Thomas hopes to guide Charlie toward a “spiritual” saving, whereas Liz just thinks he needs medical care.
“You end up finding out that she (Liz) used to be a Mormon and she left the church,” Rouverol said. “You also find out that Elder Thomas is questioning his own faith, so saving Charlie is almost a means for him to solidify his beliefs.”
Of course, the heart of this story is found in Charlie himself, who in many ways isn’t your typical protagonist.
“Charlie is a fascinating character. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play or film or piece of art that humanizes a morbidly obese person the way this play does,” Rouverol said.
Jackson said he has spent a lot of time thinking about how to play such a unique and challenging role, especially with such physical limits. Rouverol and Jackson have discussed the need to push past the initial interpretation of Charlie as the “gentle giant” and see him as a character who is fighting for purpose and forgiveness.
“It’s not like the only thing this man ever did was become obese,” Jackson said. “There is an obligation and a responsibility to respect when that aspect of one’s life truly dominates both how they live their life and how their life is viewed through society.”
Many of the scenes in the play are written in a simple, conversational way, though Rouverol said she wants to make sure the simplicity of the script does not take away from the meaning behind each moment.
“If we didn’t remind ourselves of the kind of ticking clock of his life, these scenes could be seen as casual,” Rouverol said. “I’ve been trying to get them to keep in mind the urgency and the stakes. He could die in five minutes, he could die in a day or he could die in an hour.”
Cast members said they were surprised by how many personal connections they could make with the play and their characters, even though at first they thought Charlie’s condition was something they could easily distance themselves from.
“There are so many points of connection that people can have with this play and it’s important for people to look at plays that look directly at mortality,” Rouverol said. “I think it’s something college-aged students want to pretend doesn’t exist, but it’s important to look at it and consider what really matters in the end.”
“The Whale” illuminates the theme of finding beauty from simplicity — quotidian details hold much more value when considering how short life is — and Rouverol has directed her cast towards discovering this truth.
“That’s what I love about the play,” Rouverol said. “Everyday moments are put into a bizarre perspective when you’re looking death in the face.”