AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Presented by Marin Theatre Company
Boyer Theatre
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA / (415) 388-5208

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Fast-food containers, soda cans and other trash litter the filthy apartment where a nearly 600-pound man spreads over a beat up old couch supported by cinder blocks in the Marin Theatre Company production of Samuel D. Hunter's "The Whale."

The man, Charlie (Nicholas Pelczar), makes his living as an online tutor of expository writing for college freshmen. His only friend, and the only person he ever sees in person, is Liz (Liz Sklar).

Even though Liz is a nurse who looks after him and apparently knows better, she brings him his food, such as an entire tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken or two huge hamburgers. She has a love-hate relationship with him. Maybe she indirectly blames him for her brother's death.

Charlie and her brother, Alan, a Mormon, had been lovers until Alan went to a service at the Mormon church in their small northern Idaho town, came home and stopped eating, thus starving himself to death. That's when Charlie began to allow his weight to balloon.

Much to her dismay, Liz arrives one day to find Charlie listening to Elder Thomas (Adam Magill), an earnest 19-year-old Mormon missionary who had knocked on his door.

Because of his morbid obesity, Charlie's health is rapidly declining. He suffers from extremely high blood pressure as well as congestive heart failure. When he realizes that he's about to die, he reconnects with his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Cristina Oeschger), whom he hasn't seen in 15 years. Ellie is a nasty, hate-filled girl who's mean to everyone. Charlie bribes her to spend time with him and write for him.

The play's fifth character is Mary (Michelle Maxson), Charlie's former wife and Ellie's mother, who has a relatively short but powerful scene with Charlie.

MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis directs this Bay Area premiere with skill and sensitivity and elicits multi-layered performances from each actor.

Outfitted in a realistic-looking fat suit (costumes by Christine Crook), Pelczar delivers a tour de force as Charlie, making every move a monumental effort. As Charlie's condition deteriorates, Pelczar has him wheezing and gasping for every breath as if it might be his last. It's an incredible feat of acting.

The other four actors are outstanding, too, creating characters with complex motivations.

Playwright Hunter, who recently received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, makes frequent allusions to "Moby Dick" and the biblical story of Jonah and the whale in this play. Sound designer Chris Houston reinforces this device with sounds of the sea during the blackouts between scenes. The set is by Michael Locher with lighting by Kurt Landisman.

The play runs nearly two hours without intermission, but it holds the audience rapt, thanks both to Hunter's writing and to Pelczar's memorable performance, one for the ages.

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