Freddie Ashley and Tiffany Porter star in The Whale at Actor’s Express (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

By Manning Harris

Actor’s Express is presenting a searing production of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,” running through June 14. It features five actors in the most powerful and pitch perfect acting of any play I’ve seen this year, and if you care about riveting, in-your-face theatre, you cannot miss it.

But the play’s the thing; MacArthur Fellows Program “Genius Grant” winner Hunter won all the major 2013 Off Broadway awards awards for this drama, including the John Gassner Award for Outstanding New American Play.

Charlie, played by Express Artistic Director Freddie Ashley, is a morbidly obese man between 500 and 600 pounds. From his sagging sofa in the middle of his small apartment he teaches expository writing over the Internet using a microphone; his students never see him. One writing assignment on Melville’s “Moby Dick” becomes a leitmotif throughout the play; there are also references to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Some may find these metaphors a bit heavy handed or overdone; I did not.

That Charlie seems bent on self-destruction is hard to deny: He refuses to go to the hospital even when his only friend Liz, a nurse (Tiffany Porter), pleads with him, pointing out that congestive heart failure is inevitable. Liz is a bit of an enigma to me; while seemingly his sole lifeline to recovery and the world outside the apartment, she nevertheless feeds him junk food. Why? The play may raise more questions than it answers, but it forces an audience to think and, thank heavens, feel.

“I’m so sorry.” Charlie says that repeatedly during the evening, to various people for various reasons. What’s heartbreaking to me is that he seems to be apologizing for his existence; a miserable consciousness to bear.

Why won’t Charlie go to the hospital? The answer, in large part, is his teenage daughter Ellie, fiercely played by Stephanie Friedman, from whom he’s been estranged for ten years. She begins to visit him, and her rage and resentment are fearsome to behold; she perches like a jungle cat on the edge of a table or a sofa and says comforting things like “Why did you gain all that weight?” Her anger is almost pathological, and no one is safe from her barbs. Is a reconciliation even possible?

That includes bright, young Elder Thomas (flawlessly played by Kyle Brumley) from Iowa, who pops up and sees in Charlie a mission that Brigham Young himself would hesitate to take on. You see, Charlie is gay, and his deceased  lover Alan was a Mormon and wracked with guilt over his sexuality; he fell ill and allowed himself to waste away. In a sense, Charlie is seeking absolution from Elder Thomas, but the smiling young Elder says no deal. Oh yes, Alan was Liz’ brother!

Then there is Ellie’s mother, Charlie’s ex, Mary (Agnes Lucinda Harty). As you might expect, she’s no happy camper herself: She visits Charlie and says (concerning Ellie), in effect, “I raised her and you’re giving her money.”

You may be thinking, what a humorless play. But the playwright miraculously finds humor in unexpected places. The greatest playwrights have always known that no matter how grave the circumstances, human beings are at some point funny—even in Idaho, where the play is set.

I wish I could convey to you the power of the play, directed and cast by Heidi Cline McKerley. The night I saw it you could hear a pin drop in the audience. This cast will become a legend. I could write paragraphs about each actor: the empathetic passion of Ms. Porter, the ease and power of Mr. Brumley, Ms. Friedman, and Ms. Harty.

But I want to close by saying you must not miss Freddie Ashley in this role. The man is an artist to his eloquent fingertips. When he starts to wheeze more audibly in Act II, as tension is mounting still more, the eyes well, the heart breaks. Yet his Charlie never gives up. It’s a magnificent performance, and you must not miss it, or “The Whale.”

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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