Sad Songs

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the whaleYes, after an almost four month hiatus, I’m back.  I decided to take a break from posting for a couple of reasons: after twelve years, I switched jobs and wanted, no needed, the time to adjust, acclimate, and settle in. Also, I’ve been writing From the Ledge for the past five years (since 2007!) and wanted, no needed, to slow down  and just enjoy myself a little bit more when going to an arts and culture event without the hovering thought that I’d be writing about it afterwards.  I always planned to write again, although maybe less frequently and more leisurely, but I needed to find that compelling subject that would make me want to spill more online ink on.  I very nearly wrote about the slew of Shakespeare plays I saw over the past few months: the revelatory takes on Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew by the British group Propeller at the Guthrie Theater which mined original nuances in Shakespeare’s texts without changing, cutting, or re-assembling any of it, placed side by the side with the frustrating production of Measure for Measure at the Goodman where Robert Falls’ redone ending shifted the focus of the production from being a Shakespeare play to being a Robert Falls play that has language and characters supplied by Shakespeare (heavy sigh).  And I very nearly wrote about my admiration for the vital, resonant, impressively original Victory Gardens production of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Disconnect about young Chennai call center workers which unfortunately was torn to shreds and fed to ravenous crocodiles by the most influential theater critic in the city, who I didn’t think truly got the material (another heavy sigh).  But it’s another Victory Gardens play that has me excitedly back on the blog – currently onstage is Joannie Schultz’s outstanding production of Samuel D. Hunter’s painfully exquisite drama about truthtelling and delusions The Whale, featuring an unforgettable central performance by Dale Calandra as a 500 pound dying gay man. If you love Chicago theater, you can’t afford to miss this!

I don’t think anyone in recent memory has written a play about a 500 pound character physically limited to an almost static place on stage center during the duration of the play. That alone makes The Whale an idiosyncratic work.  But Hunter has written such a fresh, beautifully-wrought piece about how loneliness and alienation make people do sometimes unthinkable, illogical, cruel things that even folks who see a lot of theater will find the play wonderfully surprising.  The Whale is about several days in the life of Charlie who teaches creative writing through an online university. Over the course of these days he gets to know a young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, who randomly knocks on his door; tries to re-acquaint himself with his estranged resentful daughter Ellie and wife Mary; and slowly comes to grips with his impending death and refuses any help despite the desperate pleading of his best friend Liz. On paper the story sounds simple and similar to other contemporary relationship dramas; onstage as it plays out the show is devastating.  Although some of the metaphors he uses (Moby Dick and Ahab, Jonah) seem easy ones, Hunter writes scenes that are haunting and brutally frank, poignant and soul-singeing. The Whale resonates with me on so many complicated levels: my struggle with weight and body image, my family relationships, my life as an unpartnered gay man. I think the play, like all great plays, will have the same echoes and resonances for many different kinds of people as well.

Schultz gives Hunter’s exceptional text the breathing room it needs with her unadorned, straightforward direction, and by helping craft a quintet of superb performances. Calabra is riveting, the best performance of an actor, male or female, I’ve seen in Chicago so far this year: encased in a body suit impressively designed by costume designer Janice Pytel, he paints Charlie’s complex emotional life (wracked by guilt at leaving his wife and daughter, anguished at the death of his partner, angry at religion, understanding death) while delivering a meticulously constructed physical performance (every time he wheezed, grunted, or gasped for air, I wanted to jump up onstage to help him!).  The rest of the cast plays at his top-notch level of game:  Cheryl Graeff’s Liz is both tightly-wound and wounded (she is the sister of Charley’s partner who has taken on the caretaker role after his death); Leah Karpel’s Ellie is menacing and vitriolic but demonstrates intricately-determined flashes of compassion; and most especially Patricia Kane’s Mary is both bombastic and heart-wrenching as a confused, aggrieved wife who still loves the man beneath the 500 pounds of flesh.  I’ve followed Will Allan’s career since his impressive debut in The History Boys, and his Elder Thomas is a mature, honest, exceptionally layered performance – painfully capturing the young missionary’s search for redemption and forgiveness, and the probability of this young man’s future to be encased in delusion as he returns back to his rigidly Mormon family and faith. Charlie, in a sense, might be Elder Thomas’ Ghost of Christmas Past.

One of the things I liked a lot about The Whale is the process of audience discovery. Once you think the story is going one way, it goes the other. So writing about the play will never match seeing it onstage. So sprint over to the Biograph Theater to see one of the brilliant new plays of the year, and experience the singular, rich voice of one of American theater’s bright young playwrights. After the first ten minutes, you’ll realize the play is more than a play about a 500 pound man.

The Whale runs until May 5 at the Biograph Theater,2433 N. Lincoln Ave.

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