Matthew Arkin and Blake Lindsley in South Coast Repertory's "The… (Scott Brinegar )
The spectacle of Charlie digging into a family-size bucket of fried chicken is one of the sadder sights in "The Whale," Samuel D. Hunter's mordantly funny, bitterly angry and ultimately deeply moving portrait of a morbidly obese man stuffing himself to death after his lover's death.
As played by Matthew Arkin (with fleshy prosthetics and makeup wizardry adding elephantine girth to the actor's medium build), Charlie is willfully drowning in his own flab — nearly 600 pounds of it. But please don't get the idea that this play, having its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory under the direction of Martin Benson, is setting up a situation that could be resolved by the dictatorial intervention of celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels.
Hunter, whose previous work includes the Obie-winning "A Bright New Boise," is more interested in the spiritual ways small-town folk from the American West try to fill themselves up, gorging on whatever is at hand to stop up the void.
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In the corner of Northern Idaho that Charlie calls home, the menu of secular options for a life of higher meaning is limited. Organized religion holds a presumptuous monopoly, leaving those without religious affiliation few ways to satisfy their gnawing hunger beyond fast food, junk TV and cheap Internet thrills.
Charlie, who makes his living as an online writing teacher, no longer leaves his dingy apartment. Hurling himself to the bathroom requires a walker and all his physical strength. Short of breath and with his blood pressure fatally high, he hasn't much time left on this earth, a medical fact that perversely consoles him.
The outside world, however, isn't through with him. When 19-year-old Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner, in a performance that's as comically alert as it is sensitive) knocks on his door, he finds Charlie in the midst of what looks like a pornography-induced heart attack.
Lacking health insurance, Charlie doesn't want this earnest visitor to call an ambulance. Instead, he asks him to read a student paper on Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." The writing isn't very impressive, but the sentiment has a strange calming effect on him.
Later that afternoon, Liz (an irascibly strong Blake Lindsley), Charlie's caretaker and (paradoxically) supplier of high-calorie meals, informs the Mormon teenager that he's not likely to "convert" Charlie. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints killed Charlie's boyfriend," she says, in the fed-up voice of someone hanging up on a telemarketer.
Her seething resentment is unmistakably personal: Alan, who was torn between his religious upbringing and his sexuality, was her brother. He made a choice to share his life with Charlie, but after he suffered a kind of nervous breakdown, he allowed himself to waste away after a routine illness.
Alan's death haunts the play as an inverted image of Charlie's self-destructive bingeing. But "The Whale" gets its dramatic momentum from Charlie's determination to make a difference in the life of the daughter from whom he's been estranged.
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Once you meet Ellie (Helen Sadler), an embittered high school senior who seems to be vying for the title role of the teen version of "The Bad Seed," you'll understand that Charlie's quest to help her graduate and develop an appreciation for her worthwhile life is as treacherous as Ahab's pursuit of the white whale.
The production is set entirely in Charlie's messy home, and the squalor of Thomas Buderwitz's effective scenic design objectifies the character's internal state. Charlie is immobilized by grief — his despair has become flesh — and his surroundings reflect his psychology.
In an essay on Falstaff, the poet W.H. Auden diagnoses a certain kind of male corpulence "as the physical expression of a psychological wish to withdraw from sexual competition." Charlie's desire, however, is much starker: He's in retreat from existence itself.
Much of the power of Hunter's play comes from the spectacle of Charlie's bodily imprisonment. Dramatic momentum occasionally stalls in "The Whale," but the work has a theatrical force that's generated by the heaving, perspiring mass of this character's startling presence.
It's a reminder that the theater is a person-to-person medium, in which knowledge is communicated not only through language but also through the encounter of human beings, actors and audience members within audible distance of one another's breathing (or in Charlie's case wheezing).