Large metaphors float aimlessly through Samuel D. Hunter’s THE WHALE (@ SpeakEasy Stage through April 5th). Some, like Captain Ahab’s obsession with Melville’s leviathan, seem plausible when you have a six hundred pound man obsessed with death center stage. Some, like Jonah’s escape from the whale (the playwright’s long awaited “revelation”) don’t fit so easily. Metaphors aside, THE WHALE is a strangely voyeuristic story of a man who cannot revise his life, a man bent on dying.
Charlie (John Kuntz, like Jonah trapped inside a whale of a costume) wants to reconcile with his daughter before he dies. She’s an angry, destructive teenager who hates her father for abandoning her and her mother when he realized he was gay. The playwright inexplicably assigns Charlie’s lover a polar opposite dysfunction: He starved himself to death. To answer why he embarked on that path, Hunter introduces a young Mormon who knocks on Charlie’s door purely by chance.
Ryan O’Connor is delightful as the nineteen year old missionary (“I’m not a kid!”) who tries to help. O’Connor and Josephine Elwood as the spiteful daughter have one of the best, and funniest, scenes in the play when she willfully undermines his piety.
Hunter creates quirky characters like Charlie’s nurse-friend who seems as if she wants to help: She finds him a wheelchair, encourages him to go to the hospital, then incongruously, feeds him endless meatball subs with extra cheese! Georgia Lyman is a plus as Charlie’s mouthy, pushy link to any outside medical care.
Happily, Hunter creates a character to provide Charlie an exquisite moment of pure affection. We see Maureen Keiller as his ex-wife slowly realize what is happening to him and years of rancor subside. The distance between them melts and it’s then we truly see Charlie as he was when he was a fully functioning being.
Director David R. Gammons’ well paced production is immeasurably enhanced by David Remedios’ rapturous sound design. We hear the glug-glug of water sloshing through pipes (mimicking intestinal gurgle), we hear oceans lapping the shore, we hear slow, labored breathing and we hear the haunting whale songs which Roger Payne first discovered and recorded over fifty years ago. Their elegant music lifts Hunter’s play out of its banality.