Charlie is the type of guy who leaves an impression. If it weren’t for his labored breathing or that he practically never leaves the sofa, his 600-pound girth is the kind of thing that makes you remember a person.
These are the last days for Charlie on earth; he’s succeeding in his goal to eat himself to death.
Navigating issue of loss and faith, Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” shows this portly protagonist while he kills himself with food and attempts a reunion with his long-estranged daughter. Charlie’s descent into gluttony started after his partner left him.
“He carries the physical manifestation of 600 pounds of emotional wounds,” says Julie Fulcher-Davis, director of HatTheatre’s staging. “It offers us the opportunity to look at the impact of emotional wounds on ourselves by looking at this man.”
For trim actor Michael Hawke, portraying the 600-pound Charlie required the use of a fat suit and a prosthetic for his face and neck. Hawke wears weights on his ankles to perfect Charlie’s sluggish movements, and says the role is one of the most challenging he’s ever attempted.
“It’s not just the acting and the way the character talks, it’s the breathing,” Hawke says. “It’s a guy who’s just wounded and vulnerable, but the audience … has to love him. He’s onstage for almost the entire show.”
In addition to other research, Hawke prepared by watching episodes of TLC’s television show, “My 600-lb Life.”
“It’s so uncomfortable to look at,” Hawke says of “The Whale.” “I think the surprising thing is by the end of it, you see yourself in the person.”
Watching Charlie’s decline is his friend and late partner’s sister, Liz, portrayed by Debra Wagoner.
“She is very blunt, she speaks her mind, she’s fighting to get Charlie to seek medical treatment — which he’s refusing,” Wagoner says — “while at the same time she keeps bringing him food.”
She says the show has special resonance with her because a loved one struggled with morbid obesity for years.
“He got to about 400 pounds at one point,” says Wagoner, who doesn’t want to name him. “He’s lost all that weight now … but I remember being a kid and hearing people make fun of him, and this show is bringing that back a bit.”
“What people don’t think about when they see someone big [is] what’s going on spiritually and emotionally with them,” Wagoner says. “They don’t see the pain.”
Where lesser playwrights might use comedy to make Charlie the butt of the joke, Hunter uses laughter to help the audience relate to his condition.
“If there were no humor in it, I don’t know how anyone could sit through it,” Wagoner says. “It asks some hard questions, and makes you look at different things. A lot of people have problems with obesity … homosexuality … questions of faith in general. I’m sure people are going to see the big fat guy onstage and giggle uncomfortably. I think it’s going to challenge a lot of people in a lot of ways, but I hope it touches their hearts as well.”
Like Hunter’s 2011 Obie-winner “A Bright New Boise,” in which a disgraced evangelical tries to search for meaning in the aftermath of tragedy, “The Whale” offers a sympathetic and realistic look at characters with whom we might not initially identify to explore questions of faith.
“His work allows us to laugh at ourselves, but look at ourselves in a very honest way and question many of the limitations we put upon ourselves as human beings,” Fulcher-Davis says. “His characters are very real, and his plays have universal themes that unite us.”
“To me, ‘The Whale’ is a beautiful, flawless play about beautiful, flawed human beings.” S
“The Whale” plays Feb. 27-March 8 at HatTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Drive. For information, call 343-6364 or visit hattheatre.org.