Charlie, the dying, pathetic, 600-pound man stuck on the couch in the middle of Samuel D. Hunter's beautifully devastating drama "The Whale," is familiar with blubber. An online writing teacher, he's a fan of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." When Charlie's caretaker, Liz, playfully threatens to knife him, Charlie points out that his vital organs have several feet of external cushioning. And Charlie, a vulnerable truth-teller clad in a physical manifestation of denial, knows how to cry. As played with palpable personal cost by Dale Calandra, subjugating himself to the best male performance of the season at Victory Gardens Theater under the direction of Joanie Schultz, Charlie is a self-loathing man so aware of the discomfort his physical appearance engenders in others, he prefers just to bring it up himself.
"Tell me the truth," he likes to say. "Do you find me disgusting?"
His estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Leah Karpel) surely does. So does Mary (Patricia Kane), who was married to Charlie before Charlie came out as gay. For Elder Thomas (Will Allan), a young Morman missionary who arrives on his Idaho doorstep at the right, or the wrong, moment, Charlie is partly an object of curiosity, but mostly a conveniently immobile mark for a young man needing to feel a sense of purpose. Only Charlie's longtime nurse friend Liz (Cheryl Graeff) seems to really feel affection for the big man, although even there, too, you get the sense that the inveterate caretaker Liz needs Charlie more than Charlie needs Liz.
Sometime we like being around those whose problems are clearly much more extreme than our own. It calms our inner tumult.
Perhaps that's part of the appeal of one of the very best plays of 2012. Hunter, who is still in his early 30s and a new member of the Victory Gardens ensemble, is a formidable writing talent. Perhaps it explains the rapt, hushed attention of Monday's opening-night audience at the Biograph, where this should be a big, fat hit.
"The Whale" manages to be about so very much at once: writing, parenting, teaching, religion, body image, over-eating, the price paid by gay couples born in the wrong state or just a few years too soon. But, most of all, "The Whale" is a remarkably eloquent exploration of the way the need for honesty overwhelms us when we sense that our time is short. If you find you are suddenly suffering politically cautious fools not well at all, you might especially sympathize with Charlie's lot.
Hunter clearly understands that this drama would not work for a moment if we did not care about the man at the center of this play. So it goes here. You want almost to leap out of your seat and carry Calandra's humble Charlie off to eternal protection. If only you would not fear for your back.
Lean, raw and vital, this first Chicago production of "The Whale" (which was Off-Broadway earlier this season) is far and away the best piece of direction I've seen from Schultz. The show is exquisitely cast — Calandra brings just the right note of gentleness to a role that could easily crush most actors, evoking not only a man enmeshed in a deep crisis about to take his life, but the universality of how sensitive souls easily can find themselves beaten down by circumstance. It might seem strange to describe this performance as restless, given that Charlie hardly moves (the costume designer Janice Pytel has Charlie encased in rolls of fat). But it's apt, for Calandra is so emotionally alive here. It feels like every interaction, every moment, every attempt to stand upright, is exacting a price from the actor. Calandra looked spent by the end of the single-act, 110 minutes.
Better yet, Schultz and her set designer, Chelsea Warren, have nixed any and all pretentious theatrical clutter in favor of high-stakes, fast-paced truthtelling without unnecessary preamble. Kane's Mary, for example, roars, raging, back into Charlie's orbit and there is something about the simplicity of her work that seems to allow us to sense the entire history of their relationship, unspoken as it may be. Same goes for Karpel's blisteringly angry Ellie. All of these needy characters feel recognizable in Shultz's production — Allan (as the missionary) deserves a good share of the credit in the way he humanizes one of those dangerously easy targets. And yet even though you quickly come to care for these folks, the script constantly swims in directions you do not expect and past the nets waiting to trip up its trajectory. Only the very last moment of Schultz's production does not entirely work. But by then, most people's eyes will be too misty to really notice.
I should note, I suppose, that Hunter and Charlie have mordent senses of humor. "The Whale" is frequently very funny. Hunter hails from Idaho himself, and this play holds its share of American Gothics: big, upper-case Characters. But Hunter's whale is beached in a kind of border town, stuck between the conformity of the land-locked Plains and the open seas of the Pacific Northwest, where a nice man who has had some troubles could just be himself and swim away.
When: Through May 5
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes