Fort Myers Florida Weekly

‘The Whale’ weighs heavily on theatergoers’ hearts and minds




When we first meet Charlie (Bill Taylor), he’s sitting, stupefied, in front of the TV, channel surfing and mechanically eating from a large bag of potato chips that leans against his massive thigh.

At 600 pounds, he’s a mountain of a man, dwarfing the couch he sits upon. Activity is such a strain for him that this is where he spends most of his life, in his living room, on this couch.

He teaches expository writing to college students online, a disembodied voice responding to their texts and essays. He passes the rest of the time by watching TV and eating. Empty fast food bags and containers litter the room, along with empty cans of Dr. Pepper.

Charlie lives a very isolated, lonely life. His partner, Alan, died a while back — ironically, by starving himself to death after a traumatic incident at a Mormon church — and now Charlie’s going the opposite route, eating himself to death.



Grief can affect people in myriad strange ways, and this is how it’s affecting Charlie. His excess weight serves as a buffer against the world, against being hurt again. It’s almost as if he’s eating for the two of them, though Alan has long left this life.

“The Whale,” playing at Theatre Conspiracy through March 23, is an acting tour de force for Mr. Taylor, made only more remarkable by the fact that his movements are severely limited by the “fat suit” he wears (designed by Tim J. Hays).

The body suit adds pounds of mountainous flesh to Mr. Taylor’s average-size frame; his profile makes Alfred Hitchcock’s famous corpulent silhouette seem almost svelte in comparison. The suit is extremely convincing, though in later scenes, with too-bright lighting, we can see where the facial prosthesis begins. (This could be easily fixed by dimmer lighting and/or better facial makeup that would match the prosthesis.)

Charlie has only two visitors: his friend Liz (Jennifer Grant), a nurse who monitors his blood pressure (a life-threatening 238 over 134) and tries, in vain, to get him to go to the hospital, and Elder Thomas (Wil Harbison), a Mormon kid who shows up on his doorstep in hopes of converting him.

Liz is an odd bird; she helps Charlie medically, yet she also enables him, bringing him fast food and snacks.

Mr. Harbison, as the teenage missionary, almost winds up stealing the show. He’s earnest and naïve, full of awkwardness and internal conflict.

Seventeen-year-old Ellie (Jennifer Koch) shows up a little later in the play. We soon learn that she is Charlie’s daughter, and he hasn’t seen her in 15 years. (He was briefly married during a “confused” period earlier in his life.)

In that blind way that most parents have, he thinks she’s “amazing.” But she’s actually cruel and hostile. It’s a one-note performance, which Ms. Koch does very well, but I couldn’t help wishing director Stephen Hooper had gotten more nuanced performances out of his actors, especially Ms. Koch. Some vulnerability would have made her a more likeable and sympathetic character.

While many of the actors turned in strong performances, I felt at times some were giving monologues, rather than truly interacting with each other.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter covers a lot of topics in this tragedy: the vilification of gays by Mormons, the inarticulateness and borderline illiteracy of college students, body image, parenting challenges and the way some straight people think all gay people of their gender are lusting after them.

There are some great lines in “The Whale” and some comic scenes — but for the most part, it is devastating and discomforting.

Mr. Taylor’s self-loathing Charlie is often whiney and overly apologetic. Though his students don’t know how to read critically or write critical essays, he persists.

“Just give me something honest,” he pleads with them.

His ex-wife, Mary (Annie Wagner) shows up. She’s a chain-smoking alcoholic, bitter at the world.

This is a play full of self-destructive people turning to the wrong thing for comfort and escape, whether it’s over-eating, drinking to excess, smoking pot or watching too much television.

When Charlie is distressed, he finds comfort in an essay on “Moby- Dick,” which turns out to be hauntingly prophetic.

I wanted to like this play much more than I did, but like Charlie’s perpetually angry daughter, it seemed to fight me all the way. At times, watching it felt like swallowing a glassful of nails, because for two hours we were witnessing a man slowly commit suicide right in front of us.

“The Whale” is provocative and depressing.

Days later, I was still puzzling over it.

‘The Whale’

>> Who: Theatre Conspiracy
>> When: Through March 23
>> Where: The Foulds Theatre at the Alliance
for the Arts, Fort Myers
>> Tickets: $20
>> Info: 936-3239 or

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