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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rep Stage Scores Big in 'The Whale'

The set of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 The Whale currently playing at Rep Stage’s Studio Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College screams, “I don’t care anymore.”  An unkempt living room, an untidy kitchen, books in shelves strewn about in haphazard fashion, and clothes hanging in various places in this crummy northern Idaho apartment symbolizes the pathetic, self-loathing, apologetic main character Charlie who resides in this disarray.  His apartment is a mess, and so is his life.  Designer James Fouchard crafted this outstanding, realistic set for this play.  #hocoarts

Michael Russotto as Charlie and Wood Van Meter as Elder Thomas
Photo: Katie Simmons-Barth
Charlie, played brilliantly by Michael Russotto, is a gay man who heartbreakingly lost his partner Allan to an early death.  A teacher of expository writing for an online class and a fan of Herman Melville, Charlie previously had lost his wife because he came out to her as gay, and in the process lost his then 2 year-old daughter 15 years earlier with nonexistent contact. 
As a result of this depression, he ate everything in sight and is morbidly obese to the tune of 600 pounds. His blood pressure is astronomical.  He can hardly move and breathe.  He is dying, and he knows it. 
But before that fateful day occurs, Charlie wants to reconcile, particularly with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie—a hateful, acid-tongued, potty-mouth, sadistic loner consumed with bitterness over her life and her father’s absence from it.  He also sought to make amends with his ex-wife Mary who struggled to bring up their daughter alone.

Under the direction of Helen Hayes Award recipient Kasi Campbell, a Rep Stage veteran, the ensemble is in complete harmony even if the fictional characters are not.  The actors portray their roles through stunningly realistic performances.  The full range of emotions are carried out expertly, and the audience is made to feel empathy for the “disgusting” Charlie, encased in padding to simulate his obesity.
Scene changes are deftly executed aided by Lighting Designer Jay Herzog’s blackout techniques—sort of like a long blink—so when the lights reappear, characters are seamlessly in a different part of the stage or different characters quietly emerge.

Playwright Hunter, who is gay, originally from Idaho and now living in New York, does not overplay the gay angle.  Though being gay is central to the demise of Charlie and his relationships to others who had been in his life, the theme reverberating throughout the play is the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the biblical tale Jonah and the Whale.
The added layer of  metaphorical references to whales laced throughout are evident including Charlie’s blubbery figure and his ultimate search for redemption, but to me the plotlines in the play are substantial enough to stand on their own.  Even Sound Designer Neil McFadden joins in the whale motif with sounds of surf rumbling during the blackout intervals between scenes—in landlocked Idaho!

Nonetheless, the strength of Rep Stage’s The Whale lies in the performances by the talented cast.  As Charlie, Mr. Russotto is totally realistic by his struggle just to get up from a chair and his difficult breathing efforts.  He skillfully invokes the right amount of humor and pathos in his role, steering the audience to pull for him. 
Megan Anderson plays Liz, a nurse, who has been the only friend to help care for Charlie.  Her true reason for getting involved in his life is revealed during the play and it comes as a dramatic surprise.  Stoic and loyal, Liz is the reason Charlie made it this far.  Ms. Anderson, a Helen Hayes nominee, turns in a strong performance and exhibits well-delivered witty and sarcastic rejoinders.

Wood Van Meter effectively plays a 19 year-old Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, who simply walks in on Charlie as he is masturbating to porn on his computer.  Can’t a man have privacy?  I suppose in Idaho doors are not locked, but the practical reason is that it would take too much effort for Charlie to answer it.
The relationship between the two is complex; immediately the sexual possibilities are demolished, but Charlie is curious about the Mormon Church.  Eager to oblige, Elder Thomas, who has a troubled history himself, toils to educate him.  The reason for Charlie’s partner’s death is linked to the man’s involvement in the local Mormon Church, and the young missionary is asked to look into it.  Mr. Van Meter is effective i playing the clean, white-shirt and tie-clad missionary and demonstrates solid chemistry with Mr. Russotto’s Charlie.  He aptly displays anger and calm when called upon.

As the hot-tempered daughter Ellie, Jenna Rossman is dynamic but at times could be a bit over-the-top.  The frequent use of the politically incorrect word “retarded” is wince-worthy, to be sure, but Ms. Rossman defines her character expertly with her no-holds-barred insults towards her father.  It’s hard to melt a block of ice, but in the end, she manages to show a glimmer of warmth.
Late appearing in the play is Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife played by Susan Rome.  Bursting through the door with a purpose, she confronts Ellie and Charlie where she participates in an outstanding dramatic scene.   

The Whale is a potent addition to Rep Stage’s 22nd season.  It hits on issues, such as parenting, teaching, overeating and being gay with religious opposition.  It’s a well-directed play that should not be missed if you enjoy extraordinary acting, well-timed humor, and can manage a tear or two.
Running time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: The play contains profanity and is not suitable for children.
The Whale plays through February 1 at Rep Stage’s Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044.  For tickets call 443-518-1500 or visit online 

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