Farmer's Branch — L.I.P. Service has a whopper of a tale with The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter. If you miss Jason Leyva’s performance—destined to be one of the year’s best—in the title role, you’ll be the person who has to talk about “the one that got away.”
On the surface, The Whale refers to the main character, Charlie (Jason Leyva) who has gained so much weight he’s almost 600 pounds, but there are other elephants in the room. If you dive deeper, the play is about the thing that drives us, defines us. Whether you’re hiding from it à la Jonah or hunting for it à la Ahab, that fish can consume you, if you let it.
With his bulk anchoring the trash-strewn set designed by the director, Danny Macchietto, Charlie teaches online classes in writing. With this setup, playwright Hunter has copious opportunity for allusions, but keeps the proceedings prosaic. These aren’t Ivy Leaguers tuning in and the papers that he has to read and revise will tie a knowledgeable stomach in knots, but there’s more at work here than at first may meet the ear.
On the back wall of the set, in the Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch, is a tall ovoid shape with cracks that reveal a brickwork of junk and fast food wrappers and refuse. The inference is all Humpty Dumpty and all the kings’ horses couldn’t put Charlie back together again. On the other hand, sometimes we need to break of our shell. Even if it means glimpsing at a wall built of consumerist consumption. There’s no denying it’s a great wall. In any case, the piece will visually feed the audience during the silences deftly left by the playwright.
Thrown into the midst during a particularly hairy medical moment is a door-knocking Mormon, Elder Thomas (R. Andrew Aguilar). How else can a playwright introduce characters into a play about an almost exclusively sedentary main character? Only Elder Thomas’ religion will matter more than at first it would seem, and not just because the main character is on death’s door. Charlie has almost succeeded in eating himself to death, you see.
Tending to the wheezing patient is a friend, Liz (Amy Cave), who is a nurse. Besides confirming his terminal diagnosis of the final stages of congestive heart failure, she’ll bring junk food and watch junk television. Only later will we learn the origins of such a deep and co-dependent relationship. And why she has such a negative reaction to finding a Mormon in the apartment.
Sometimes plays end-load their exposition forcing us to flashback to explanatory scenes, but the events here at the end of Charlie’s life will play out linearly even if they are heavily predetermined by choices made long ago. Charlie’s understandable (and almost universal, under the circumstances) goal is to set something right. Like the papers that he revises, he wants to make a correction: his relationship to his estranged daughter, Ellie (Taylor Donnelson).
It goes about as well as expected, considering he left her mother, Mary (Leslie Boren) for another man when Ellie was young, but his good faith and great bank account win over the hard-hearted teen. It’s hard to decide which is more devastating; that he will pay her to come see him or that she’ll accept. This is the unflinching gaze that playwright Hunter has focused on these people. (Hunter’s new play Clarkston will have its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center in December.)
The cast is less uneven than other L.I.P. Service productions this year. Director Macchietto gets his cast to trust the smaller, honest moments. Aguilar is most effective late in the play as his Mormon mission falls apart. Cave and Boren both bear great witness to the pain of watching a loved one harm himself. The trickiest of the supporting roles goes to Taylor Donnelson as the damaged daughter. Donnelson must draw a fine line between joyful sadism and the just vengeance of a victim.
She’s a teen girl, after all.
That Charlie loves her either way makes this an amazing character. That Jason Leyva can make us believe that love makes this an amazing performance. At first the microphone sound support seemed out of place in the small theater, but the intimacy it allows Leyva to create in conjunction with Charlie’s thin wheezing breath is worth any awkwardness it brings.
This show is about appreciating what is really important and focusing on that, after all. It really is about the little things.
Fun fact: the blue whale, largest mammal on earth, lives on krill, tiny crustaceans.
Well done, Mr. Hunter.
» Read our interview with Jason Leyva about this role