It took designer Alison Roberts about a month to construct the enormous fat-suit costume for Charlie, the grotesque, wheezing 600-pound character bent on destroying himself in the play “The Whale.”
It takes the all-around actor Scott Greer an hour each time he puts it on, in a hidden dressing room specially constructed on stage because the costume’s too big to fit through portals.
It takes only a few scenes, though, to see that “The Whale” by Samuel D. Hunter, currently at Theatre Exile’s Studio X in South Philadelphia, is worth all the effort. The unwieldy suit is a perfect fit. So is the play, a story with disparate plot lines that tighten its grip as it moves forward.
Greer is sensational in the roll of Charlie, low-keying his outsized character at times, which makes the person buried under the blubber all the more relatable and real. Greer has to bring this off mostly without moving — he sits in what would be a small couch for most people, but is for him a chair. The few times he rises, it’s with great effort — for Greer, I imagine, as well as for his character. Given the death- rattling wheezing frequent in his performance, Greer’s head must be light by the end of each performance.
That, too, is worth the effort — in order to really know Charlie, we have to feel his physical burden as his body strains, his condition worsens and he refuses to be taken to the hospital. He hasn’t seen his daughter (Campbell O’Hare) since she was a toddler – now she’s an abusive, angry and hateful high-schooler who turns up because she knows it’s her last chance with him. So, eventually, does his former wife (Amanda Grove).
Charlie tutors unseen students in essay-writing sessions on the Internet, a freelance job that keeps him going and basically anonymous. His only friend, it seems, is a nurse (Kate Czajkowski) who pops in to be with him and monitor his health — he knows her through his former lover, a man who estranged himself from Charlie gradually, then died. That’s when Charlie began eating himself to death.
Mormonism plays heavily into this. The lover was a Mormon, who had some sort of life-changing episode at church. Now Charlie has invited a young Mormon man on his mission (Trevor William Fayle) to come around and spend time.
Hunter’s a nimble playwright – and he ties his many strings of plot together with the focus clearly on Charlie. Matt Pfeiffer’s keen direction steadily paces the play, set in Charlie’s messy apartment (Thom Weaver’s design), and also ensures that the man’s condition never crosses the line from morbid to unwatchable.
“The Whale” refers, of course, to the lead character, and also to the biblical Jonah and, less successfully, to Moby Dick. And it describes the process of putting on the play, with its over-the-top demands. At Theatre Exile, they are well met.
“The Whale,” produced by Theatre Exile, is extended through March 8 at Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets. 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.