On Theater: This 'Whale' packs a wallop

The characters in playwright Samuel D. Hunter's devastating drama "The Whale," now onstage at South Coast Repertory, are not the sort you might invite into your home for dinner or a chat. They're not even, with one exception, particularly likable.

But as they expel their vitriol on one another in director Martin Benson's riveting production, they tend to grow on the audience — if only because their miserable lives make ours, however harsh, seem more palatable. And their performances are strong and dynamic, even though painfully negative.

"The Whale" centers on a 600-pound intellectual, confined to home and couch, who functions as an online writing coach. The conflict arises when he attempts to reconnect with his 17-year-old daughter, whom he hasn't seen since walking out on her and her mother (for a man) when the girl was 2. Now, nearly grown, she's learned to hate the world and everything in it, usually at the top of her voice.

Throw in the man's no-nonsense nurse (that only likable character), a young Mormon missionary and the 600-pounder's embittered ex-wife, and you have the ingredients for one of the strangest, yet most compelling, situations ever mounted on a local stage. Audiences may be repelled, but they'll also likely be enthralled, as shown by the semi-standing ovation at the opening performance.

The central figure, Charlie, is played with astonishing force and power by Matthew Arkin, whose raspy, wheezing voice under all that excess weight gives the play its strange command over the viewer. It's little surprise that the actor is the son of Oscar-winning screen veteran Alan Arkin.

Arkin delivers a devastating performance as a man trapped inside a gargantuan body. His face reddens as he struggles to stand upright and shuffle to the bathroom with his walker. He's a good deal more comfortable when his nurse supplies him with an extra-large wheelchair.

That nurse, Liz, is the playgoer's only connection with a normal, well-adjusted world, while simultaneously serving as a hazard to his health by supplying him with heart-unfriendly meals. But as smoothly interpreted by Blake Lindsley, she also has a disturbing backstory that explains her connection with Charlie.

The daughter, Ellie — who shows up after 15 years and only stays because Charlie's promised her a fortune — is a gruesome caricature brought only part way to life by Helen Sadler, who revels in her character's negativity. Only extreme guilt would justify a father's devotion to such a raging harridan.

The girl's mother, grimly enacted by Jennifer Christopher, arrives late in the play to set some of the confusion aright. Glimpsing her, if only briefly, one can understand why the daughter grew up with such a sour attitude.

Finally, there's "Elder Thomas" — which is not, as we learn, his real name — a teenage Mormon on a mission who's surprisingly accepted by Charlie and becomes a major force in the drama. Wyatt Fenner skillfully portrays this geeky, one-dimensional character who unravels a crucial element in the plot.

The setting, a cluttered, litter-strewn home in rural Idaho, is nicely realized by Thomas Buderwitz, with Donna and Tom Ruzika offering a complex lighting design with frequent and sudden blackouts. The prosthetic design and supervision of Kevin Haney enables Arkin to successfully project the image of a character so limited by his extreme bulk.

The "Whale" of the play's title ostensibly refers to the grossly overweight Charlie, but during the production, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" assumes a greater influence on the action — and prompts a scathing showdown between father and daughter at the climax. It's a visceral experience powerfully presented at South Coast Repertory.

If You Go

What: "The Whale"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday until March 31

Cost: $20 to $60

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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