GableStage opened its production of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale on July 19, 2014…
A multiple Award-Winning Off-Broadway triumph about a six-hundred-pound reclusive gay man who is dying of congestive heart failure. Teaching English composition online from his disheveled apartment, he's desperate to reconnect with his long-estranged daughter. He reaches out to her only to find a viciously sharp-tongued and wildly unhappy teen. Big-hearted and fiercely funny, it is the story of a man's last chance at redemption and of finding beauty in the most unexpected places.
Joseph Adler directed a cast that included Gregg Weiner, Deborah Sherman, Amy Miller Brennan, Karl Skylar Urban, and Arielle Hoffman.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Like the title leviathan rising from the deep, GableStage’s production of The Whale begins with few ripples disturbing the placid surface. It’s even a bit frustrating waiting for the conflict to assert itself. But the vague outline of a behemoth emerges from the muck and it grows in emotional heft until it breaches the surface with shattering impact.
The performances molded by director Joseph Adler seem too muted for at least half the play, but as secrets tumble out and stakes intensify, everyone in the cast energizes their characters until the last quarter of the play sweeps away any misgivings. These are finely-tuned performances, not showy bravura turns.
The performances are uniformly solid, starting with Weiner who convincingly inhabits the physicality of a man who must rock in his sofa to get enough momentum to stand up, who finds walking unassisted a challenge, who is easily winded and who is doomed by worsening congestive heart failure.
Seen locally on stage since she was a young teen, Hoffman has been “promising” but in need of experience as seen in GableStage’s Hamlet and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Effect of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, plus some staged readings.
But here, she zooms past “promising” and delivers a no-excuses no-asterisks performance as Ellie. She and Adler courageously make Ellie a troubled teen covered with an impenetrable coat of razor sharp porcupine needles – as unapologetically and unrelentingly abrasive as Hunter intends.
Sherman has only one scene, but it’s the second best in the script and she just nails it… Sherman’s Mary quickly brings us around, making it clear that raising Ellie has been a life-draining nightmare that has destroyed her life.
Miller Brennan reminds everyone who only thinks of her as a musical theater actress (such as Slowburn’s Chess and Actors’ Playhouse’s Ruthless! earlier this season) that she has the same considerable talent for straight drama. Her Liz is as fiercely protective as a feral creature defending her young. Meanwhile, Urban invests the bright evangelist with an earnest altruism that explains why Charlie allows him to hang around.
Ultimately, it’s a satisfying production of an engaging script by the hot young playwright responsible for A Bright New Boise and The Few.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Each of the five characters in Hunter’s absorbing play, which is getting an exquisitely acted production at GableStage through mid-August, is a damaged and lonely human being.
The Whale is, undeniably, full of serious content and conflict. Hunter explores issues of family abandonment, the religious tug-of-war between compassion and condemnation, and of course the dicey morality of supplying a self-destructive man with the means to do himself in. But the artistry of all those involved — the playwright, director Joseph Adler, an extraordinarily engaging cast — makes the play’s journey as rich and multidimensional as life itself.
Weiner, encased in a convincing 50-pound fat suit created by costume designer Ellis Tillman, literally anchors the production. His Charlie sits on a sagging sofa at centerstage, barely able to hoist himself up to the walker necessary for a laborious trek to the bathroom. Pleasant, smart, stoic and constantly apologetic, Weiner’s Charlie sports a will of iron under all that corpulence.
Arguably the play’s most unforgettable scene is the one that ends with an intricate emotional pas de deux between Weiner and Sherman. Mary blasts into Charlie’s cluttered, modest apartment, in full furious mom mode, ready for another verbal smack down with her disappointing daughter. When the former couple is finally alone, Mary tames her shaking hands with straight vodka, and the two begin a conversation that is part reminiscence, part reckoning. Sherman’s work is raw and powerful, the scene harrowing and beautiful .
On the page, Ellie reads as unrelentingly and sometimes unspeakably cruel. But the charismatic Hoffman creates a totally recognizable teen rebel who wears her aggressiveness like emotional armor, protecting a vulnerable heart. Both skilled and gifted, Hoffman is clearly a young actor with a big future.
Known in the region for her award-winning work in musical theater, Miller Brennan infuses Liz with a finely calibrated balance of humor, frustration and anger.
Urban’s Elder Thomas is, for much of the play, its comic relief, and the actor’s rendition of the character’s blind faith and problematic past work well opposite Hoffman’s manipulative cynicism. But his most powerful scene is his final one with Weiner, as the Mormon boy ardently gives voice to the belief that helped decimate Charlie’s life.
Roger Martin reviewed for Miami ArtZine:
As Charlie, Weiner is an endlessly apologizing gay, guilt ridden father, ponderously eating, sweating and manipulating. He’s The Whale or maybe not, for this one act by Samuel D. Hunter, covering five days in Charlie’s life, is a trove of allusions, connections and fascination.
Director Joe Adler has surrounded Weiner with a cast, Amy Miller Brennan, Arielle Hoffman, Deborah Sherman and Kyle Skyler Urban, that under Adler’s direction, gives an evening of theatre to be treasured. And you’ll certainly remember it.
With her powerful performance Amy Miller Brennan brings the conflicted Liz, the ultimate enabler with a drive to keep Charlie alive while killing him with food.
Arielle Hoffman is Ellie, sulkily scary as the malevolent teenager who hates the world and all within. Especially her father and Mary, her mother, played by Deborah Sherman.
Sherman, as the manic Mary, is a whirlwind of hate and rage and unexpected tenderness, the perfect portrait of one abandoned.
Everything in this production connects: Lyle Baskin’s messy, book filled apartment; Jeff Quinn’s slat shadowed lighting and undersea effects together with Matt Corey’s ocean sounds during scene changes; Ellis Tillman’s costumes.
If there’s such a thing as a tragedy that leaves you feeling fine then GableStage has it.
Hap Erstein reviewed for Palm Beach ArtsPaper:
…the play receiving its Southeastern premiere at Coral Gables’ GableStage, is as stuffed with themes as Charlie is with meatball subs. While it could stand to be put on an idea diet, it is hard to deny Hunter’s provocative dramatic situation and his ability to create juicy acting roles.
Weiner dominates the production, but director Joseph Adler pulls a couple of terrific performances from his young actors —Hoffman and Urban — which is one of his signature talents. Hoffman inhabits foul-mouthed, belligerent, pot-smoking Ellie with white-hot intensity, in marked contrast to Urban’s oblivious cool demeanor.
The usual GableStage design team helps to create the curious world of The Whale, from Lyle Baskin’s books and pizza boxes-strewn apartment to Ellis Tillman’s character-rich costumes and Jeff Quinn’s understated lighting.
For those more academically inclined than Charlie’s students, Hunter layers his play with allegorical references to Melville’s Moby-Dick and the Bible’s Jonah saga. Still, The Whale is hardly as profound as it wants to be, but it does contain a handful of remarkable characters that audiences are likely to be drawn to and repelled by.
The Whale plays at GableStage through August 17, 2014.