At first glance, Charlie appears to be one of the least appealing characters ever to hit the Boston stage.
He weighs 600-plus pounds, can barely move unaided, and catalogs the grimmer bodily side effects of his condition aloud to shock a visitor. His living room couch, surrounded by empty food wrappers, is where he works, eats, sleeps, and masturbates. Congestive heart failure might kill him at any moment, but he refuses medical care. He gobbles a meatball sub with such urgency that he almost chokes to death.
But the actor who plays him says we have to look past that awful exterior.
“He’s such a great person,” says John Kuntz. “He’s so generous and brave and kind.”
That’s the challenge of “The Whale” by Samuel D. Hunter, a New England premiere from SpeakEasy Stage Company that kicks off performances Friday in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. On the outside, Charlie is repellent — perhaps especially to himself. But he is also fully human, and by the end of the play, even a tragic figure.
“People think, ‘Oh, it’s the play about the fat guy,’ but it’s so much more,” Kuntz says. “This is a father trying to connect with his daughter, this is a man who is very sick and facing his mortality. This is a man who is suffering such profound grief and hasn’t been able to get over it. And then on top of that, he’s larger.
“When he talks about his weight, the first thing out of his mouth is always ‘I’m sorry,’ and that’s heartbreaking,” the actor says.
Charlie’s downward spiral began years ago, when he came out of the closet and it destroyed his marriage. But the consequences were even worse for his male lover. Now, his days clearly numbered, he wants to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Josephine Elwood). His volunteer nurse, Liz (Georgia Lyman), just wants him to get medical care, although she’s also an enabler (see: meatball sub). Even his ex-wife, Mary (Maureen Keiller), turns up to see what’s become of him. And there’s a young Mormon missionary at the door, Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor), who wants to save his soul — although Charlie questions whether it’s his being fat or being gay that bothers the Mormon the most.
Charlie just wants to finish his last round of work as an online student-writing coach, without caring what happens to him. He has found a strange consolation in a student’s offhand essay comments about “Moby-Dick,” one of several times the play invokes that novel or the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.
Kuntz is one of the town’s best-known actors as well as a playwright, lean and energetic, but his characters are usually ordinary looking, their outsize impact coming from their behavior. He’s played Uncle Vanya and the David Sedaris version of a department store Christmas elf. But director David R. Gammons says Kuntz came to mind immediately to play Charlie, because of his sense of humor and the vulnerability he can display.
“Obviously he’s not the right physical type . . . but the transformation with the suit and the prosthetics is pretty extraordinary, and I knew we’d be able to accomplish that as we needed to,” Gammons says. “There’s a person trapped inside that body, and to me I don’t mind the fact that there’s a level at which the audience knows that’s an actor inside a suit. That’s a conceptual piece of the way in which Charlie’s spirit and mind are trapped inside the physical body he’s grown into.”
“The Whale” premiered at Denver Center Theatre Company in Colorado in January 2012, then off-Broadway the following October at Playwrights Horizons. Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley ended up renting the fat suit from the latter production, saving the time and expense of building one. It has an unusually potent impact on the actor.
“I’m literally putting on his body every single time I play him,” Kuntz says.
The transformation is “amazing, disturbing, haunting, but really pretty powerful,” says Gammons.
Normally actors would not rehearse with costumes until the final few days before opening. But Gammons insisted that Kuntz be in the fat suit from day one. “It’s not a costume that you add in technical rehearsals. It is his physical reality,” the director says. “We cannot make this play without him really understanding his dimensions and the way in which it makes it hard for him to walk or do anything.”
“I’m a little claustrophobic as a person, and the first time I put it on, I got an anxiety attack,” Kuntz says. “It was terrible, because you’re inside this thing, and I just felt really trapped. I’ve gotten used to it, but as I was feeling anxious and trapped, I realized, this is how this guy must feel all the time, and that was very helpful.”
Kuntz notes the play’s use of “Moby-Dick” and the story of Jonah as examples of a complex approach to Charlie’s relationship to his body: “There’s this idea that his body is the whale, that his body swallows him, that his body betrays him but sort of protects him too. Sometimes I’m in that suit and I feel nothing can get me. He hides in there too.”
On a recent afternoon rehearsal, in a studio at the BCA, Kuntz sits on a folding chair trying to help as two members of the production staff pull the suit onto him. Buckley says it’s primarily made of spandex, foam rubber padding, and what she believes is birdseed for extra weight. The actor and director estimate the suit weighs 60 pounds, although Buckley thinks it’s lighter. Kuntz will also wear prosthetics to bulk up his face and neck.
Kuntz knew working inside the suit for a two-hour play would require considerable physical effort. After he was cast last year, he embarked on a diet and exercise regimen to get in shape and, ironically enough, lost 20 pounds.
“It’s hot, oh my God it’s hot. It’s like being in an oven,” says Kuntz. “The other danger is hyperventilating. Because he’s dying of congestive heart failure, so I’m wheezing all the time. I have actually almost passed out a couple of times.”
Gammons notes they procured Kuntz a type of cooling vest normally used by people wearing mascot suits at sporting events.
They researched morbid obesity by reading and watching reality TV shows like “My 600-lb Life.” “Often I’ll watch like, 15 minutes, and then I have to stop for a little while,” says Gammons. “There’s some pretty difficult stuff. Confronting the human reality of what a physical body at that weight would be is not comfortable.”
Also important, Gammons says, was a “courageous, generous” visit from a member of the local theater community who once weighed 575 pounds before gastric bypass surgery. They asked him about everything from the basic physical realities of his daily existence to the more complex reactions of people on the street.
“Obviously in this play Charlie is completely shut in,” the director says, “but part of that, we assume, is not only that he’s physically incapable of getting out, but because there’s an emotional/psychological component of that. You don’t want to be seen.”Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.