Stage

Cockroach’s admirable execution can’t overcome excesses of ‘The Whale’

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Jakob Sauter in The Whale
Photo: Will Adamson
Molly O'Donnell

Three stars

The Whale October 22-24, 8 p.m.; October 25, 2 p.m.; $16-$20. Art Square Theatre, 702-818-3422.

Storm clouds cut by shards of pale lightning are all that’s visible. Thunderclaps that seemed distant a moment ago are now on top of us. And this is before we even cross the threshold into Art Square Theatre, where the pre-show announcements fittingly take the form of an emergency alert.

Currently running Samuel D. Hunter’s tragicomedy The Whale, the Cockroach Theatre team promises a stormy show rife with oceanic references (though Hunter’s MacArthur “genius” grant makes us hope for fairer weather). A play about a housebound 600-pound man (Jakob Sauter), The Whale reveals its protagonist’s end-of-life journey to make amends and connect with loved ones (his daughter and ex) and new acquaintances (a Mormon missionary). But while the current production offers admirable execution, from acting and directing to sound design, the play itself seems to be what sinks.

Packed with Moby Dick references, if this play has an Ahab, it’s Liz (Ela Rose). The nurse who’s supposedly keeping main character Charlie alive is also a codependent feeder, whose obsession with her dead brother’s boyfriend is really an obsession with the past. That past includes the Mormon faith and its role in her brother’s death. When the young Elder Thomas (Michael Kimm) arrives at the door in the service of the Latter-day Saints, Liz explains that God’s plan is one he’s constantly revising.

God is arbitrary. Unfortunately, so are the metaphorical underpinnings and editing of The Whale, which wants us to consider Moby Dick author Herman Melville and the biblical story of Jonah while not fully exploring any single interpretation. In and of itself this would not be a huge problem; a lot of contemporary theater prefers to gesture toward meaning. But coupled with the overly literal—a man eating himself to death because his lover starved himself—it becomes too much. Hunter’s work does have one thing in common with Melville’s: He could’ve used a good editor. To paraphrase one of Hunter’s own insights through the lens of Charlie, the boring parts just made me think how he was trying not to tell us his own sad story.

A tighter script could’ve left the solid acting of Aviana Glover’s angry teenage girl and Sauter’s tragic victim intact without cramming the characters into overwrought caricatures. With a good cut, the play’s well-executed moments of human pathos—a wife remembering lost love, a youth in search of meaning, a heart bigger than the enormous body that houses it—could have moved us. Without it, finding those moments in the hours makes you feel like you’re the one hunting the white whale.

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