THE WHALE presented by Clifton Players through Oct. 26. Read the show description.
The Clifton Players open their season by ambitiously tackling Samuel D. Hunter’s THE WHALE. The result is an uneven production that stumbles in defining the environment for the show.
Reggie Willis gives a strong performance as 600-pound Charlie. He worked well within the limitations of the body suit. The prosthesis design, by Kelly Yurko, succeeded in bringing the weight to Willis’ face and looked great head-on. Unfortunately, the intimacy of the space doesn’t allow distance to hide problems such as the make-up running onto Charlie’s shirt or the visible “scar” (perhaps a tear in the appliance) on his neck. Several times issues like this pulled focus at certain angles.
Carter Bratton does nice work as Elder Thomas. I really enjoyed both the energy he brought to the character and the physical choices he made for the wayward Mormon. I did think there were a few more comedic opportunities in the script. I also would have like a hint that ET he wasn’t being totally honest.
Cathy Springfield portrays Charlie’s nurse and friend Liz. Springfield has some nice moments when she has a good grasp of the character, but there were other times where she seem to lose that Liz attitude. Her initial outburst at Elder Thomas seemed more like a rant than actual pain or anger. When we learn the connection between Charlie and Liz it seemed to be delivered off-handedly with no break for the audience to comprehend and react. The revelation of Charlie’s betrayal (that is how I would characterize it) was disappointing. Liz immediately turns so her back is facing the audience, and we can’t see her reaction to the news or Charlie’s reaction to Liz’s hurt. Her subsequent lines don’t pack the emotion needed to sell the moment. And the reconciliation in a following scene seemed emotionally-light and rushed.
I would have liked to see a bit more vocal variety by Leah Strasser as Charlie’s daughter. I understand that Ellie is an angsty teenager mad at the world. But, when every word is uttered with the same vocal intonation, it’s hard to figure out who or what is making her so angry. Opening night, Strasser had a tendency to pounce on her pick-up lines, causing her dialogue to come off prepared instead of spontaneous. I also think there were a few more comedic opportunities in the script for Ellie as well.
Carol Brammer does some nice work as Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife and mother of Ellie. The chemistry between Charlie and Mary is great and their shared past is easy to believe. I did think Charlie’s weight gain should have had a bigger impact on Mary, considering what he looked like when she knew him, and how long it had been since she had seen him.
So overall a good script with a good cast, although uneven in characterization and emotion.
That being said, for me, attention to detail can make a good show great. There are also times when inconsistencies in choices can draw me out of the show and lessen my enjoyment. In this production, there were decisions in decor, props and blocking left me scratching my head.
To get to and to maintain 600 pounds, you have to eat alot of food. (Somewhere in the neighborhood of 9,000 calories per day according to the interweb.) While I don’t expect to see Willis constantly eating, we do need to see evidence of this eating over the course of the five days within the show. As presented, this production implies that Liz is Charlie’s enabler and his only source of food, and this just doesn’t ring true. He also binge eats, so not sure I buy him reaching for an open bag of doughnuts, just eating two, then putting them back.
Also, where is the evidence of food delivery being made to the house? The majority of the debris on the floor is from fast food joints that don’t deliver. Where are the empty cans from his multiple colas each day. The liquid in his giant drink cup looks more like Kool-aid than soda. You would think a man with limited mobility and his health issues would have his myriad of medications at arms reach.
Speaking of the debris on the floor. No character in the show makes any attempt to clean up this mess, although all (but Liz) initially react to it. Yet when a bucket of chicken is brought in for a scene, it is struck during the blackout, implying someone is selectively cleaning?
There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to it.
In one scene, Ellie makes a point of not sitting on the couch due to the strong smell coming from it. Yet a day or two later she is fully lounging on the couch with her hooded-head where her father normally sits.
It also goes against credibility to see the character of an experienced nurse fumble with a stethoscope they have used everyday for years. There needs to be a level of comfort with your props.
I’m not listing all these things just to be nit-picky. I’m trying to illustrate that many small issues can have a negative impact on my overall suspension of disbelief.
I applaud the Clifton Players for what they are attempting to do in this intimate theater space, but I think they need to make smarter production decisions and find more creative ways to tackle the limitations of their home venue.
Complete list of show times for THE WHALE.
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