John Kuntz is virtually immobilized for much of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Whale,’’ splayed across a couch while encased in a fat suit to play a nearly 600-pound writing instructor in northern Idaho named Charlie. All that leaves are Kuntz’s face, voice, acting chops, and powers of empathy.
And that proves to be more than enough. Kuntz, a gifted actor-playwright, is riveting as a man who is helplessly marooned in his own body but waging a brave and moving struggle to give his life meaning as he approaches death.
As Charlie doggedly attempts to make things right with his bitterly estranged teenage daughter in this New England premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s prize-winning drama, you get the feeling that you’re seeing a man who’s also trying, in some larger sense, to finally break through to something true. Kuntz’s superb performance travels an analogous path: It’s a journey deep into the character’s tormented heart that illuminates the truth of who Charlie is beneath his grotesque appearance.
To his credit, director David R. Gammons does not make it easy to look past that appearance; does not make it easy, period. Profound loss and grief underlie Charlie’s years of compulsive, self-destructive eating, and Gammons — while steering clear of cloying excess — makes sure we feel the pain radiating out in all directions from the sofa where Charlie now spends his days and nights. When he needs to go to the bathroom, Charlie requires a walker, and Gammons lets those scenes play out with real-time laboriousness. Gammons directed Kuntz’s “The Salt Girl’’ and “The Hotel Nepenthe,’’ and “The Whale’’ represents another satisfying collaboration.
Attired in a gray sweat shirt and gray sweat pants (costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley) that don’t appear to have been changed in a while, Charlie communicates with his students by means of his laptop. He returns again and again to a youthful book report about “Moby-Dick,’’ needing to hear the words spoken aloud; it’s a device beautifully deployed by Hunter, with a substantial emotional payoff late in the play.
Georgia Lyman excels as Charlie’s friend Liz, communicating the depth of the friend’s anguish at what she sees happening but is powerless to prevent, while making clear that Liz, too, is hobbled by some significant emotional baggage.
Charlie is gay, but he was married for a time to Mary (Maureen Keiller), with whom he had a child named Ellie. After not seeing the girl since she was a toddler, he’s made contact, and she is now in his apartment, a 17-year-old bundle of hostility toward him and the rest of the world. Ellie is well played by Josephine Elwood, an Emerson College student, who channels a bit of Aubrey Plaza’s April from “Parks and Recreation,’’ then burrows beyond that toward a rage that is genuine and possibly bottomless.
Ellie is armed with a teenager’s knack for languidly delivering a well-aimed barb as though it is a throwaway line. “Just being around you is disgusting,’’ she tells her morbidly obese father, one of six times she uses the word “disgusting’’ to describe him in the first few minutes of their reunion. (In a poignant touch by director Gammons, a childhood photo of Ellie hangs on Charlie’s wall. According to a SpeakEasy spokesman, it’s Elwood’s actual second-grade photo.)
Charlie is also the target of ostensibly more friendly attention from a 19-year-old Mormon missionary called Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor), but is there an agenda ticking away beneath the young man’s innocuous and insecure exterior?
The rudderless wreck Charlie’s life has become is apparent from the moment we enter the Roberts Studio Theatre, where the tireless and inventive set designer Cristina Todesco has pulled out all the stops to create an environment that seems simultaneously engulfed by chaos and mired in stasis.
Beneath the stage is a virtual debris field, chockablock with hundreds of empty containers that testify to Charlie’s out-of-control appetite: pizza boxes, hamburger boxes, crumpled bags from fast-food joints. His apartment is not much cleaner. Soft drink cans and potato chip bags are scattered about the floor, and a giant Double Gulp cup is perched within slurping range of where Charlie sits.
The sofa is listing to one side and appears to be sinking into the floor, a trace of oceanic imagery befitting a production that is preceded by the sound of steadily lapping waves (sound designer David Remedios does superlative work throughout) and is laced with references not just to “Moby-Dick’’ but also the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.
As the play begins, the sound of the waves is succeeded by the sound of Charlie’s heavy, labored breathing. Frequent coughs and gasping pauses punctuate Kuntz’s subsequent performance.
But if this solitary man is going under, it won’t be without one last attempt to forge a connection that means everything to him. The writing instructor wants to craft a story that will outlive him. As vicious as Ellie can be, Charlie sees something in her that not even her mother can see. It’s there in Kuntz’s eyes, and by the end of “The Whale,’’ we see it too.