Charlie is 600 pounds. And he wants to die.
Samuel D. Hunter’s play “The Whale” is a nuanced and provocative social commentary that sneaks up on you. This is much more than just the odd story of a morbidly obese man. I caught up with director Charles Erven to talk about this startling contemporary piece of theater, which opens Friday, March 2, at Fresno City College.
Q: You knew you’d have the chance in this production to feature Fresno State theater professor Brad Myers as a guest artist. Did that affect the selection process of “The Whale”?
A: We try to select plays that are relevant and, hopefully, resonate with an audience. With the exception of having a guest actor, the selection of “The Whale” was really no different. We simply wanted to find the best vehicle for Brad and our students. I sent him a few possible scripts to consider and it was quickly narrowed to The Whale. It’s turned out to be the best choice we could have made.
Q: In “The Whale,” a 600-pound man is despondent. Why?
A: Charlie, a college professor who teaches online classes, has been eating himself to death for over a decade because his partner, unable to reconcile being gay with his Mormon faith and family, committed suicide. Charlie has become a recluse and has had limited physical contact with anyone or anything outside the confines of his apartment. I think his gaining so much weight was not, initially, a conscious decision, but rather a kind of psychological reaction to personal tragedy. At some point the physical and psychological weight became his normal existence and he resigned himself to dying from it. It’s only when his daughter comes back into his life does he really begin to question choices he’s made.
Q: The play includes themes of broken families, obesity, homosexuality and religion. What theme spoke to you the strongest when you read it for the first time?
A: The play has many intertwining themes and is smartly structured to get the most emotional impact. One of the themes I was particularly drawn to is the notion that people often believe they are helping but the result is often hurtful. For instance, the play has a young Mormon Missionary who earnestly believes he is helping Charlie by condemning his lifestyle and love. The Mormon Missionary is not drawn as a villain or a cliché but rather as a very human character in shades of gray. Charlie’s only friend is a nurse who both cares for him and plies him with KFC and meatball subs. The dichotomy of the characters is dramatically rich territory for actors and audiences. alike.
Q: Having a couch-bound central character must have been a directing challenge for you. How did you deal with it?
A: Brad is a wonderful actor, and because he’s also a teacher, we knew he’d be very generous with our students. And he was. Having a character that is mostly stationary has been less of a challenge than I initially assumed it would be. I attribute that to the cast and to Brad, in particular. It also helps that the playwright found ways to move the character at key times in the story, and Christina McCollam Martinez’s scene design also facilitates movement. It all feels very fluid and organic.
Q: You’re very good friends with Brad, and he’s also an accomplished director. Does that make it difficult at all for you to direct him?
A: We actually never talked about directing nor was it ever an issue. Brad and I have both been doing theatre for decades now and we each have a sense of how to shape a story or production. It becomes about that play; what’s best in the telling of the story. It’s a very open and organic process and egos or territory or whatever you want to call it, was never part of the mix. I think it helps that we’re good friends.
Q: Costume designer Debra Erven had a big task: designing Charlie’s costume. What were some of the hurdles she had to leap? What does Brad have to go through to put it on?
A: It’s one of the great creative challenges of the play. The “fat suit” must be realistic and yet allow for a full range of movement. It also must also be ventilated and have a “cooling” system built into the suit. There are layers to it and it takes about two hours for the actor to get into costume and makeup. There are adjustments to the suit and makeup that happen every day. The key is patience.
Q: People are often judgmental about obese people. Has directing this show made you feel any differently about the way society treats them?
A: It’s driven home the obvious fact that morbid obesity isn’t simply a physical problem, easily solved by surgery, but something driven by psychological underpinnings. I think I knew that before but it’s made it more concrete and complex. I’m certainly more empathetic.
Q: Playwright Samuel D. Hunter begins and ends the play with the recitation of an essay on “Moby-Dick.” Assuming your audience hasn’t read that book (or did so long ago), is there anything important to know about it?
A: I don’t think you need to have read or be familiar with Moby Dick. The novel is referenced as a motif in the play but is not a retelling of the book. In the book, Ahab obsessively pursues the white whale, Moby Dick to the point of self-destruction. Charlie, in his own way, has done the same.
Q: It sounds like “The Whale” could be a bleak and unrelenting play, but there’s also some levity. How does the playwright incorporate this?
A: While Charlie’s journey is serious and inevitable, it’s also quite funny. He has an oddly positive attitude (call it denial, if you want) and his estranged daughter, Ellie, who he has not seen in fifteen years, shows up. Ellie, it turns out, has a biting tongue and says the most shocking (and funny) things about almost everything and everyone. Ultimately, the play centers on Charlie and Ellie and becomes a story about a father-daughter reconciliation.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: The play is intended for mature audiences (“R” rating). There is no sex, nudity or violence in the play but there is adult language and themes.
“The Whale,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 2, Fresno City College Theatre. Runs through March 10. Tickets are $14 general, $12 students and seniors.
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