Review by Barbara Waldinger
According to playwright Samuel D. Hunter, his award-winning play, The Whale – currently on stage at Pittsfield’s Whitney Center for the Arts – was conceived while he was teaching a course in expository writing to freshmen at Rutgers University. What he learned was that in order to teach students how to write a good essay, he had to teach them not only to think independently but to have empathy. Throughout the play, Charlie, his main character, recites a seemingly short, simple essay about “Moby Dick” that demonstrates these qualities.
Like Hunter, Charlie teaches writing, hoping to find moments of “naked sincerity” in his students’ work. A morbidly obese man bent on eating himself to death, Charlie seeks a connection with his teenage daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a young child. Having left his family to live with his partner Alan, a Mormon and former student who has since passed away, Charlie begs and bribes his daughter to spend time with him. Rounding out the cast is Liz, Alan’s sister, a nurse who cares for Charlie, Elder Thomas, a young Mormon who claims to have been sent on a mission to northern Idaho, where the play takes place, and Mary, Charlie’s former wife.
The visits of each of these characters to Charlie’s home comprise the structure of the play. What do they each want of Charlie? What does he want from them? Why does he choose to end his life? How do they try to stop him? We explore these questions and many more in a play that, despite its premise, offers hope and empathy.