It’s safe to say you’ve probably never heard of a protagonist like Charlie in Samuel D. Hunter’s play The Whale. He’s a 650-pound online writing instructor with a tragic past.
“Fell in love with a Mormon man who was the son of a bishop. And they fell in love and then because of a sermon that the lover attended—his partner attended—his lover starved himself to death. And therefore Charlie, in grief, is basically eating himself to death," says Western Michigan University theatre director Mark Liermann.
Friday is opening night for the play at the university’s York Arena Theatre. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Due to mature content, the theatre will not admit anyone under the age of 16. The play runs through February 8th.
Phil Vasquez plays Charlie. Though Vasquez will not wear padding for the play, it’s clear he’s done a lot of work to make the heavyweight character believable. On stage he can barely move, wheezing with every step.
“How does the stomach impede the legs, how does that motion work," says Vasquez, explaining his process.
"Then, what actually are the strong points in the body. The strong points, due to an extent, have to be like upper thighs to support. I actually do have some upper body strength because you have to support yourself on a walker. And it’s figuring out what’s stronger than me and what’s more impeded.”
While you could write an entire play about the mysterious death of Charlie’s partner—or Charlie’s health—Liermann says that’s not the focus of The Whale. Charlie thinks he has only a few days to live and wants to make peace with his estranged daughter, Ellie.
Though Charlie has friends trying to help him out—a nurse and a Mormon missionary—angsty teen Ellie isn’t interested in him.
Ellie: “So what? You want me to like help you clean yourself or go to the bathroom or something? If that’s what you need than you need to find someone else.”
Charlie: “You don’t have to do anything disgusting, I promise.”
Ellie: “Just being around you is disgusting.”
At times Ellie can seem downright hostile, but Liermann says she has her reasons.
“I come from a broken home and you know as you get older and you hear both sides of the story, things change. You know as I grew up in a single household with my mom I only heard the one side of the story—and it was a very specific story. And as you get older and you hear the other side, things change a little bit," he says.
"So I guess, not that that’s a big part of the play but we do see that as well. She has a very specific idea of what happens and she discovers through the play that that’s not…it’s not that easy right.”
But when Charlie reads Ellie’s essay on Moby Dick, it leads him to believe there’s still hope. He often recites it to comfort himself in the play.
“For all of her anger and for all of the things that are leading her in different ways, the one thing—and this is the thing that Charlie really sees—is that she always tells the truth,” says Liermann.