Brutal honesty. That's playwright Samuel D. Hunter's razor-sharp focus in his deeply significant play, The Whale. And through Charlie, a 600-pound gentle giant played by the superbly understated Dale Calandra in Victory Gardens' uncompromising production, we see brutal honesty: in the flesh.
At Monday's press opening, there were audible "tsks" and sighs of disapproval from the audience as the couch-ridden and morbidly obese Charlie reached for a non-diet 20 oz soda and tore into a tub of KFC provided by his well-intended but enabling caregiver Liz (Cheryl Graeff). But by this must-see production's powerful conclusion, the snap judgements are wiped clean and you're simply left devastated by Charlie's unrelenting honesty and humanity.
The brilliance of Hunter's work is that he's written a character who so desperately craves honesty and truth, he'll take it any way he can find it. Even if it means absorbing verbal abuse from his estranged 16 year-old daughter Ellie (a brooding Leah Karpel) or allowing a well-meaning Mormon (the tightly wound Will Allan) to enter his house and judge his downward-spiraling lifestyle.
Charlie, a part time online writing tutor, just wants people to speak from the heart -- even as his own diseased heart fails him. He's recently suffered a great loss -- his male partner -- and he's unable to reconcile his emotions. He's also been given the grave news that he has days to live. So now is not the time for half-hearted pleasantries.
Director Joanie Schultz does wonderful things with Hunter's potentially melodramatic script, but perhaps the wisest choice is casting Calandra as Charlie. The articulate, soft-spoken Calandra embodies the unassuming heart and soul in this heart-wrenching show. Through Calandra's deeply honest performance, we learn that it's never too late for second chances, as fleeting as they may be.
"The Whale" plays through May 5 at Victory Gardens Theater. More info here.