Kuntz is ‘all in’ in Speakeasy’s ‘The Whale’
BOSTON — John Kuntz is — to use a poker term — “all in” the Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of Samuel D. Hunter‘s “The Whale.”
The performance by playwright/actor Kuntz now at the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts is as brave as it is skilled.
It combines physical stamina and an other-worldly ability to concentrate while solidly encased in the “fat suit” that aids his portrayal of Charlie, a college professor who has ballooned up to more than 600 pounds, is barely able to walk unaided, and is dying of congestive heart failure.
It is a harrowing portrayal of a man who lost connection with everything important in his life — his wife, his daughter, his friends — and all that remains is his work.
At one point, he taught in the classroom, but that is long gone and now he conducts online writing courses, where his students hear his voice without seeing him.
Christina Todesco’s chaotic set of the living room in Charlie’s home is reminiscent of the Stoneham Theatre’s production years ago of “The Dazzle,” a story of two brothers who were mentally-ill hoarders whose collection of trash and stuff eventually envelops them.
Here, fast-food wrappers compete for attention with empty soda bottles — former Mayor Bloomberg would be aghast — and food is stashed in various corners of the room for visitors and Charlie to come upon.
The room — and his body — have both served to imprison Charlie.
“I’m sorry,” he says often, apologizing to others for past errors, what he has become and the revulsion they feel at his appearance.
Charlie’s descent begins soon after he leaves his wife and child to begin an affair with a male student, a dalliance that ends in tragedy when Alan, his lover, becomes despondent when he is rejected by his parents and the Mormon Church and simply wastes away.
Thus the irony when a 19-year-old Mormon missionary named Elder Thomas (Ryan O’Connor) becomes a persistent caller to Charlie’s home. O’Connor is tentative at first, but rises to the occasion in several key second-act scenes.
Emerson College student Josephine Elwood holds her own and then some as Ellie, Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter. She was only 2 when Charlie left and returns to his life as an angry young woman, resenting both him and her mother, failing at school yet curious about a father she has never known. She is revulsed and lashes out.
“Being around you is disgusting,” she says at one point.
But Charlie prefers to see the good in all, describing his daughter as “amazing,” an attitude allows him to survive in conditions that are inhabitable.
Georgia Lyman gives a heartfelt performance as Liz, a nurse who became connected to Charlie when he began a relationship with her brother, and continued to care for him as he deteriorated, even as she enabled him to continue his self-destructive bent.
Maureen Keiller is Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, curious to know what became of him and then saddened at how she finds him.
Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley was able to rent the fat suit Kuntz wears from Playwrights Horizons, which performed the play, and prosthetics are used to bulk up his face and neck.
“The Whale” is often hard to watch , but there’s no turning back. Once you’re in the theater, again you’re “all in” just as Kuntz, Director David R. Gammons and the rest of the cast are.
There is no denying the humanity of Kuntz as Charlie, buried though it is under mounds of blubber. We are horrified by Charlie’s appearance but in all his extreme self-destructive gluttony, he is part of the human condition, and he demands attention.
The question that will be answered is: With time running out — each labored breath reminds us of it — can Charlie summon the will and the courage to make the connections with his wife and child he desires?
The Speakeasy Stage Company production of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale.” Directed by David R. Gammons. Set, Cristina Todesco. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, Jeff Adelberg. Sound, David Remedios. At the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through April 5. http://www.speakeasystage.com