Robrt Pela: The Whale

By Robrt Pela
February 21, 2014

A new production of writer Samuel Hunter's "The Whale" has landed in Tempe. Theatre critic and KJZZ commentator Robrt Pela takes us there.


With The Whale, Ron May and Damon Dering have combined forces, May as director at his own Stray Cat Theatre and Dering in the lead of this marvelously complicated play. Together, they have turned out the must-see production of the season.

Samuel D. Hunter’s story about a morbidly obese man seeking redemption at the end of his life has had other, more high-profile productions in the recent past, at Chicago’s Victory Gardens for example and New York’s Playwright Horizons. But, not having seen them, I did not find myself holding back tears at those productions.

In a fat suit, Dering plays the beleaguered title character, Charlie, a distance-learning professor who teaches expository writing from the filthy sofa on which he is marooned in Eric Beeck’s smartly dreary set.
He bribes his mean-spirited teenaged daughter, played by a darkly comic Michelle Chin, to spend time with him in the last days of his life. The pair meet and ultimately save a young Mormon missionary played guilelessly by Austin Kiehle and are harangued by a woman named Liz, in a neatly calibrated performance by the dependable Anne Marie Falvey. She loves Charlie in spite of his refusal to care for himself and his endless litany of sputtered apologies.

Dering said he was changed by doing this play.

“It was really more that the decision to do this play changed me. I really felt that the only way to do “Charlie” justice was to be really honest about some of the things that have gone on in my life and act them, and that is not something I am used to," said Dering. "In order to do it, I sort of have to lay myself bare, and that is not something I’m used to doing.”

Dering avoids scenery-chewing and reveals the fragility behind this dying man’s histrionics, no easy task when you are acting in a fat suit.

No actress less estimable than Johanna Carlisle could turn up late in the second act of a play this well-built and shift focus from a cast this strong. She does. The scene in which Carlisle encounters her wretched ex-husband after 15 years, her face registering pity, love, revulsion, is an entire acting class in itself, a primer of how to emote brilliantly all the way to the cheap seats.

The terrific beauty of this stunning production’s final moment belongs not to its exquisite and hardworking cast but to lighting designer Ellen Bone, who depicts death as a stylish period on a story that demands our attention, and moreover deserves it.

The Whale continues through March 1 at Tempe Performing Arts Center.

Pela’s writing appears each week in Phoenix New Times.