May 27 2015 01:00 PM

Samuel D. Hunter's 'The Whale' is a big story about love and death

Judy Bauerlein and Andrew Oswald in “The Whale.”
Photo by Ken Jacques

Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale is an uneasy spectator experience: two hours without intermission in the presence of a 600-pound character, Charlie, who's been eating himself to death in the aftermath of his lover, Alan, having starved himself to death.

Charlie (Andrew Oswald) is a sympathetic but devastating figure, marking the days he has left on this unkind mortal coil, fighting to breathe but more so fighting to forge one enduring bond with his pissant of a teenage daughter, Ellie (Erin McIntosh).

There's shock value to the sight of this desperate, cerebral behemoth, but that feeling effectively wears off in Hunter's highly literate drama, now on stage at Cygnet Theatre, and the focus becomes not on the body but on the soul. This emotionally taxing play strains for metaphors (right down to its title) as surely as Charlie strains to move across the room, leaning on his walker. And the snarky correspondences from the college students he teaches online are formula teen-speak. It's the intense character relationships that elevate The Whale, and not merely the obvious Charlie/Ellie dynamic. Charlie's tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside nurse-friend, Liz (Judy Bauerlein) feeds him fast food at the same time she's trying to keep him alive.

Trying to save Charlie, too, but in a spiritual way, is a nobly intentioned but mixed up young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (Craig Jorczak). What, after all, is salvation? It's one of many questions The Whale proffers. There's no question that director Shana Wride's star is up to the physical demands of the role. Oswald bears the burden of the fat suit well, and his underplaying approach gives Charlie considerable dignity. (Thankfully the audience is spared any graphic eating sequences.) Oswald's scenes with Bauerlein ring truest, manifesting the affection between Charlie and Liz, good friends facing the inevitable. The Whale is an ominous affair rife with moments when you won't know whether to laugh or take an anxious breath. While its psychological wanderings and literary allusions complicate matters, it's really a simple tale if you let it be, one of connections lost and found, to yourself and to others.

The Whale runs through June 14 at the Old Town Theatre. $39 and up;

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The Underground New Play Festival: UCSD undergraduate playwrights, actors and directors present five original short plays at this annual showcase. Opens May 28 at the Arthur Wagner Theatre at UCSD.

Come From Away: The world premiere of the rock-inspired musical about 38 passenger planes that had to detour to Newfoundland following the events of 9/11. Directed by Christopher Ashley, it opens May 29 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Wrenegades: An Ecological Adventure: A new production about a depressed man struggling to save an endangered bird, told through music, puppetry and dance. Presented by Circle Circle dot dot, it opens in previews May 31 at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse.

Theophilus North: A professional reading of the play that was adapted from Thornton Wilder's autobiographical novel of the same name. Presented by Carlsbad Playreaders, it happens June 1 at the Schulman Auditorium at the Carlsbad Library.

Betrayal: The balance of power shifts throughout Harold Pinter's classic play of a love triangle gone awry. Opens in previews June 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.

Now playing

Rent: Based on Puccini's famous opera, La Bohème, this highly successful musical is about young folks struggling to get by in New York City. Through May 30 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: In a musical based on a Biblical tale, a dude who has an "amazing" garment becomes a slave, but he triumphs in Egypt regardless. Presented by Lamb's Players Theatre, it runs through May 31 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown.

Bingo: Hijinks ensue in this musical about three friends trying to make it to an annual celebration honoring the creator of the card-and-numbers game. Presented by PowPAC Community Theatre, it runs through June 7 at the PowPAC Theatre in Poway.

Last Chance Romance: Sam Bobrick's comical romp about a thirty-something woman desperate to get married at any cost. Through June 7 at Lamplighters Community Theatre in La Mesa.

Singin' in the Rain: The musical production of the beloved movie about the early days of sound film. Yes, it will rain onstage. Presented by San Diego Musical Theatre, it runs through June 7 at Spreckels Theatre in Downtown.

Arms and the Man: Often considered George Bernard Shaw's most romantic comedy, this play centers on a young Bulgarian woman who gets caught up in a love triangle during the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885. Through June 14 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.

The Whale: The San Diego premiere of the Off-Broadway hit about a 600-pound recluse desperately trying to reconnect with his daughter before he eats himself to death. Through June 14 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.

Everybody's Talkin': The Music of Harry Nilsson: A world premiere musical about the highly influential, but still relatively obscure singer-songwriter. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through June 21 at the Lyceum Stage in the Gaslamp.

A New Brain: A musical about a young composer rushing to create his masterpiece after learning he has a fatal brain disease. It runs through June 21 at Diversionary Theatre in Hillcrest. 

Rich Girl: A new play about a wealthy mother and daughter and the gentleman caller who comes between them. Based on the novel, Washington Square, by Henry James, it runs through June 21 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.


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