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On Theater: This 'Whale' packs a wallop

March 27, 2013|By Tom Titus
  • Matthew Arkin and Blake Lindsley in South Coast Repertory's production of "The Whale" by Samuel D. Hunter.
Matthew Arkin and Blake Lindsley in South Coast Repertory's… (Scott Brinegar…)

The characters in playwright Samuel D. Hunter's devastating drama "The Whale," now onstage at South Coast Repertory, are not the sort you might invite into your home for dinner or a chat. They're not even, with one exception, particularly likable.

But as they expel their vitriol on one another in director Martin Benson's riveting production, they tend to grow on the audience — if only because their miserable lives make ours, however harsh, seem more palatable. And their performances are strong and dynamic, even though painfully negative.

"The Whale" centers on a 600-pound intellectual, confined to home and couch, who functions as an online writing coach. The conflict arises when he attempts to reconnect with his 17-year-old daughter, whom he hasn't seen since walking out on her and her mother (for a man) when the girl was 2. Now, nearly grown, she's learned to hate the world and everything in it, usually at the top of her voice.

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Throw in the man's no-nonsense nurse (that only likable character), a young Mormon missionary and the 600-pounder's embittered ex-wife, and you have the ingredients for one of the strangest, yet most compelling, situations ever mounted on a local stage. Audiences may be repelled, but they'll also likely be enthralled, as shown by the semi-standing ovation at the opening performance.

The central figure, Charlie, is played with astonishing force and power by Matthew Arkin, whose raspy, wheezing voice under all that excess weight gives the play its strange command over the viewer. It's little surprise that the actor is the son of Oscar-winning screen veteran Alan Arkin.

Arkin delivers a devastating performance as a man trapped inside a gargantuan body. His face reddens as he struggles to stand upright and shuffle to the bathroom with his walker. He's a good deal more comfortable when his nurse supplies him with an extra-large wheelchair.

That nurse, Liz, is the playgoer's only connection with a normal, well-adjusted world, while simultaneously serving as a hazard to his health by supplying him with heart-unfriendly meals. But as smoothly interpreted by Blake Lindsley, she also has a disturbing backstory that explains her connection with Charlie.

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