Town Players' "The Whale" flounders

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PITTSFIELD — Charlie, the central character in Samuel D. Hunter's dark, roiling, complex play, "The Whale," which is being given a courageous if also less than satisfying reading by Town Players of Pittsfield, is dying. Unlike his late partner, Alan, who wilted to death, Charlie is a victim of conspicuous consumption. When we meet Charlie at the play's opening, he weighs 600 pounds. He has congestive heart disease. He occupies a small apartment in a small town in Idaho — a testament to his insistence on letting go (smartly and revealingly designed by Ryan Cavanaugh) with books stacked high against his living room walls and empty food wrappers, paper bags, containers, pizza boxes, newspapers filling the spaces around and beneath his furniture.

He can barely arise from his couch and could not move at all were it not for a walker and a good friend, a nurse named Liz (played with dimension and understanding by Meaghan Rogers), who routinely looks in on Charlie and is desperate to get him into the hospital where he can be cared for properly.

But Charlie (Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon in something of a hit-and-miss performance that is not helped by the unconvincing fat suit that's been built for him by George Veale) is determined to live whatever remains of his life on his own terms.

Charlie — whose means turn out to be more considerable than his lifestyle would indicate — earns a living teaching an online course on expository writing. For him, teaching is not simply a matter of getting his students to understand and write articulately about the classic American literature he haa assigned them — "The Great Gatsby" and, perhaps more notably, "Moby Dick." For Charlie, expository writing is about expression, communicating, articulating thought, connecting with others; most important, expressing independent thought.

Nowhere are the issues more critical for Charlie than with his estranged, truculent, acting-out teenage daughter Ellie (played to a one-note surly fare-thee-well by Sam Therrien) to whom he reaches out and offers to help with her school writing assignments. It is not simply a matter of coming to her aid, her rescue. It also is about Charlie finding some kind of redemption, healing, as, in his waning days, he teaches out and up.

This is not easy material. Hunter's characters are damaged and self-destructive — Charlie overeats; Liz smokes; Mary, Charlie's ex-wife, drinks; a young Mormon is addicted to pot; Ellie

pushes boundaries beyond limits. The relationships are complex, layered and far more nuanced and driving than is suggested by director Jackie DeGiorgis' production which skirts full engagement with the play's emotional texture; leveling the play's dramatic peaks and valleys, opting instead for caution, indecision and a sluggish, often halting rhythm.

Much of that has to do with Schane-Lydon's opting for real-life accuracy in dealing with Charlie's physical challenges and how they effect the rhythms of his speech. Breathlessness makes speech difficult but there is a middle ground between what happens in real life and what needs to happen on a stage. More important, it is often difficult to get a read on Schane-Lydon's Charlie in terms of what may or may not be going on with him. It often feels as if Schane-Lydon has yet to make some decisions, in moments, on the whole, about the arc of Charlie's journey in "The Whale." Charlie is pulled in a variety of directions, often at once, but there is something too placid, at best; too uncommitted in the layers at and below the surface.

While the anger and resentment Therrien builds into her as Ellie are justifiable and understandable, that's all we see. No pain, no hurt, no confusion, just attitude without substance, without foundation, without context, shading or texture. At times — too many of them — she simply seems not worth saving

One of the production's more effective moments, other than the scenes involving Rogers (who shows no confusion, ambiguity or fear in taking on the issues that drive Liz) have to do with an unexpected visit from Charlie's ex, Mary, played by Nancy Schaffer with understanding and skillful pace and rhythm. It's a scene that holds more than a few surprises. Schane-Lydon and Schaffer rise to the occasion in a gentle, revealing scene that has a lot to say about loss, love, life and value; memories and what might have been without getting sentimental.

Dane Shiner appears as a young Mormon who has lost his way and intrudes on Charlie's life in a bid to find answers and resolution for himself. It's a performance marked by annoying, unsettling staccato-like movements and line readings that carry little emotional persuasion, like a series of dots that remain unconnected. How emblematic.


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