Charlie (Burke Brimmer) is a shut-in, weighs 600 pounds, and is dying. His one friend, Liz (Amanda Eaton), a nurse, enables his obesity even as she tries to save him. And his only other contact with the outside world is through the lessons he broadcasts out (sans camera) to his online writing students. But just as Charlie’s prognosis worsens, his life suddenly intersects with a random young Mormon (Gus LaRou) and his own estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Ella Briman). Everyone is contending with a loss, pain, or sense of not belonging, in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, an odd and poignant dark-comic drama on stage now at Mad Horse, directed by Christine Louise Marshall.
Charlie’s bulk is literally center stage for much of the show; Brimmer wears it as a huge, shocking, cushiony prosthesis, darkened with grease stains on the legs (a fine, cringe-worthy touch). Within this body, Charlie barely moves. He sits, eats, and teaches in a living room that’s squalid and haunted: cans and food wrappers litter the floor, and on the putty-colored walls float the white ghosts of where photographs once hung.
Just getting through two hours under the lights in such a getup must be challenge enough, and the nuance of Brimmer’s physical work is stupendous. He physicalizes the largely immobile Charlie’s wide range of feeling almost entirely in his eyes: Reacting to Eaton’s (excellent) brash, foul-mouthed Liz, Charlie rolls his eyes around in a sort of ironic “Ok, ok.” When Elder Thomas asks if he wants to hear about the Word, Charlie’s eyes dart from side to side and up, as if in calculation, before he responds. And as he tries to keep a conversation going with unreceptive Ellie, his eyes flit upward again and again, like a little lapping wave, as if gently nudging her along. When Charlie does move his body, Brimmer takes pains to show us how monumental are the weight and the effort, shaking violently as he pulls himself off the couch to his walker, staggering his way across the room with excruciating slowness.
Charlie endures it all with a gracious acceptance, as if he has long since internalized his self-loathing and the sight he knows he makes — a sight that others insult with breathtaking directness. Eaton’s strident Liz veers wildly in her moods: from giddiness, as she brings him some new medical panacea; to her rage at his rapid decline, calling him a “fat fuck” and “worthless”; and finally to her own self-loathing for having said it. Eaton makes heartbreakingly clear that Liz’s cruelties are a demonstration of her need, her desperation to save a friend who is refusing to save himself.
Unlike Liz, Ellie is coolly, deliberately cruel to Charlie, and Briman is spot-on with the teenager’s flat, derisive affect, the “fuck”-inflected disdain and level, deadly gaze. “Just being around you is disgusting” is the least of what she says to her father. She’s a jerk to everyone else, too. She first opens the door to Elder Thomas with a blunt, scornful “What,” then constantly goads the teenage Mormon, whose animated movements and enthusiasms, in LaRou’s hands, contrast well against bored Ellie. Her fuck-off lines become a little relentless, but Briman manages to convey how with each truth she shares, however reluctantly, she is a little more present in the room.
As The Whale tracks Charlie’s health and relationships, the plot also hangs interestingly on the significance of a certain student essay about Moby Dick; we hear fragments of it reverently recited by Charlie. The equanimity it inspires in him, as he receives everyone’s strife, hurt, and ugliness, is nearly mystical, almost saint-like. And his unearthly stoicism makes all the more poignant his rare moments of physical intimacy. In a quiet, remarkable scene, his estranged ex-wife Mary (Amy Torrey, in a strong and exceptionally well-modulated performance) rests her head on Charlie’s stomach — at first gingerly, but then relaxing, relenting her body into closeness with his. It is the most acute physical tenderness we see onstage, and they hold the moment as if they’ve been desperately thirsting for it.
And what are we to make of the martyrdom Charlie is heading toward with the monomania of a certain whaling captain? The plot’s revelations (and whale allusions) are sometimes intriguing, sometimes a little pat; its resolutions are both simple and ambiguous. But the show’s eye is unflinching and its empathy deep. This Mad Horse production is a moving, sometimes harrowing meditation on both what we swallow and what we allow to swallow us.
The Whale | By Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Christine Louise Marshall | Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St, South Portland | Through November 18 | Thu-Sat 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm | $23 ($20 seniors/students) | www.madhorse.com