Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
May 29, 2015
Everyone is adrift in “The Whale.” Each character is flailing, drowning, in Samuel D. Hunter’s deep, moving and multilayered drama. They feel abandoned, disenchanted or betrayed.
The play is laced with symbolism and allegory. The Whale of the title is not just its 600-pound centerpiece, Charlie, who’s been eating himself to death since the devastating demise of his tortured Mormon boyfriend. There are multiple references to Moby-Dick and the Biblical Jonah. And just in case we don’t get it, the on-the-nose sound design at Cygnet Theatre repeatedly gives us a background of crashing waves, roiling between grindingly monotonous piano riffs.
But that is the only weakness in Cygnet’s superb production, skillfully designed by Sean Fanning, beautifully, sensitively directed by Shana Wride. The magnificent ensemble is anchored by Andrew Oswald’s Charlie, the supersized man with an aching, failing heart, ever in pursuit of his own elusive mammal, his angry, hate-filled teenage daughter, whom he hasn’t been allowed to see for 15 years. Also floating in and out of his life are his conflicted nurse-friend Liz, his bitter ex-wife Mary, and a young Mormon on a mission, who’s more in need of saving than able to save.
Religion and unexpected humor figure prominently in the work of the young, MacArthur “Genius” grant-winning, New York-based playwright, who sets most of his dramas in his native Idaho. But these floundering folks could be anywhere, grasping for a lifeline even as they refuse it.
At the center, the dying Charlie remains a mountain of positivity. He can find little gems even in the awful essays written by his Twittering online college students. He knows the life-changing power of story, whether in great literature, or the Book of Mormon. And only he could ask the play’s most profound question: “Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”
Despite the heartbreaking, unmoored nature of these surprisingly sympathetic characters, in their own pitiful ways, all are reaching out for connection, and we can take some comfort in that.
“The Whale ” runs through June 14 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
©2015 PAT LAUNER