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Review: “The Whale”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Some people never recover from the loss of a loved one and grief can manifest in a lot of different ways.

For Charlie (Shanon Weaver), the loss of his partner has lead to a slow and painful decline into morbid obesity – and his story is profoundly moving watch.

Tackling a range of fraught issues (from obesity to addiction, homophobia and religious intolerance), Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,” playing now through March 15 at Hyde Park Theatre, is the kind of show that will stick with you.

At times humorous and charming, at others outright painful to witness, the show achieves a rare level of pity and catharsis for a group of ethically complex characters.

Having eaten his way to fatal blood pressure levels after his boyfriend’s death several years ago, Charlie is now facing what are likely the last few days of his life. And in his indomitable optimism and search for honesty, he reaches out to an estranged and very angry teenage daughter (Kayla Newman).

Directed by Melissa Livingston-Weaver and put on by A Chick and a Dude Productions, this Texas premier of the award-winning play is one of the finest pieces of drama I’ve seen this season.

Obesity is difficult to stage either convincingly or compassionately, but this production manages to achieve both.

Adding to a fat suit constructed by University of Texas MFA costume-technology student Christina Hobbs, designer Kelly Ruiz has turned the otherwise average-sized Weaver into a 600 pound character whose self-destruction we come to witness. And rather than turning Charlie’s enormous body into an object of ridicule, Weaver’s nuanced and highly physical portrayal evokes a level of sympathy that will leave viewers raw.

While the suit itself weighs less than 20 pounds, you’d never guess from Weaver’s careful performance. The actor’s rehearsal process, in which he weighed himself down with dumbbells, clearly allowed Weaver to tap into the extreme exertion required of such an encumbered body. With labored breath and red-faced straining just to stand upright, Weaver’s performance seems excruciatingly real at times.

Although the play starts off a bit slow and decidedly awkward in the second scene, it ultimately builds to a series of heartrendingly poignant interactions – thanks to an all-around first-rate ensemble.

As Charlie’s caretaker Liz, Erin Barlow skillfully balances her loving compassion with sharp-tongued frustration. And Jon Cook’s achingly earnest portrayal of a young Mormon missionary (Elder Thomas) complicates a straightforward reading of his character’s final bigotry.

“The Whale” continues through March 15 at Hyde Park Theatre. achickandadude.squarespace.com