The walls of the set (given a unity courtesy of Juliana von Haubrich) are inescapable and gray — the gray of bleached whalebones — or of a prison cell.
Clutter ebbs and flows around furniture, the tideline of a polluted shore. Books signifying a great mind are overwhelmed by empty pizza boxes and soda cans — implying the tragic strait the main character is caught in. Essays flutter off side tables, the desperate search for a route between these two extremes.
This is the platform for Adirondack Theatre Festival’s production of “The Whale” by Samuel D. Hunter. It is the habitat of Charlie, a morbidly obese, housebound English professor, played with excruciating realism by Timothy Carter. Most cases of good acting center around replacement of the actor’s ego with that of the character’s. The psychological, motivational, emotional and spiritual sensibilities of the character must be adopted in their entirety. In this role, Carter faced the additional challenge of assuming a new physical persona as well, choreographing his motions to give the impression of a 600-pound man.
Isabel Rubio (costuming) and Derek Robertson (make-up) merit distinctive recognition for their artistic coordination. The straightforward suit of the young Mormon might have been easy enough, but the metamorphosis of Carter into a convincingly obese man was masterful.
But Hunter’s play is not about obesity. Nor is it a play about religion, even though it includes a fervent, confused young Mormon, Elder Thomas (given unsettling believability by Ethan Dubin). It is not about friendship, although the loyalty of Charlie’s friend Liz (the excellent Brenny Rabine) seems incorruptible. It is not about broken families, even though Charlie’s teenage daughter (realized with remarkable obnoxiousness by Bonnie Hogg) and ex-wife Mary (given jerky, credible emotions by Lesley Gurule) must seek family reconciliation.
Rather, it is a play about the necessity and pain of honesty, a play that refuses to fall into stereotypes or cliché. Director Kristen van Ginhoven has crafted a tight series of scenes that refuse to be carried on the premises of subject matter alone, although the deeper meanings are manifested in the subjects.
Charlie is dying. A professor of online English courses, he is constantly urging his students to seek perfection in every essay, while his life deteriorates in every moment. Elder Thomas is looking for somebody to help, an indirect search for the confirmation of his own insecure beliefs. Liz is a desperate friend, undergoing the agony of watching Charlie give in to death. Ellie is strong and angry — a teenager who finds release in hating everyone. Mary is tormented by her perceived failings as a mother and her inability to cease caring about Charlie.
There are touches of gallows humor in this very intense play. Liz mimics a car’s back-up alarm as Charlie steps backwards; Charlie’s daughter writes that when he dies, his corpse, too large for doors or windows, will have to come out in pieces. These are the characters’ survivalist approach to dealing with a situation that is impossible to gloss over, impossible to euphemize.
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The episodic structure of the piece’s poignant, brief chapters give form to the collaboration of character and plot. Like the stanzas of a poem — given separation and uniqueness by a simple white space — these episodes find their emotional space in the brief and resonating darkness between scenes.
Hunter’s expert play inserts plot threads that tie in throughout, but not in a bow-and-ribbons, fairy-tale manner. Viewers are left with uncertainties to ponder: deeper questions of life that exist below the surface of transient appearances.
Is faith (or atheism) the product of indoctrination — or is it only to be grasped after testing a more cluttered sea of perspectives? Is family assured by genetic and marital ties, or must it become one’s purpose in life before it is fully realized? Is it possible to shake the blinders of stereotypes from our eyes, or is our world to be forever tinted by them?
These are questions the audience will find themselves answering and asking, as they witness the strong ideas of “The Whale.”
If you go
Adirondack Theatre Festival presents Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and July 19 and 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Charles R. Wood Theater in Glens Falls.
For tickets, which are $25 to $40, go to www.atfestival.org or call 874-0800.
The play contains adult themes and language.