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Essay

Tim Sanford on "The Whale"

"Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life."

"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it." 

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

None of the five vivid, lonely characters in Sam Hunter's mighty, exquisitely heart-rending The Whalehave any recent acquaintance with the peace or joy of Melville's metaphorical Tahiti. Its morbidly obese protagonist, Charlie, comes the closest. Since the death of his partner, Charlie has been quietly eating himself to death, looked after in his dingy Idaho apartment by his dead lover's sister, Liz, teaching an online English class. Just when she thinks it's time to call an ambulance, she learns Charlie has a crackpot plan to bribe his embittered, long-estranged teenaged daughter, Ellie, into visiting him. What's more, a well-meaning Mormon teenager on a door-to-door witnessing mission takes up Charlie as a cause. It's almost the stuff of comedy. Actually the scenes between Ellie and said Mormon, Elder Thomas, are pretty hilarious. But it's Charlie who's on the mission. Empathy and insight seem to bounce off Ellie, though. And when her mother, a tangled knot of liquored hurt and resentment, shows up at Charlie's door, we understand why.

Just as Melville coaxes layers upon layers of meaning out of the symbology of Moby Dick, Sam gets a lot of mileage out of the many intentional resonances of his play with Melville. The great white whale does not mean just one thing. To Ahab it may represent the darkness of his own soul, but in the worldview of the novel, it also represents death or the hidden soul. For Ellie and her mother, Charlie may embody the dark demons of the "half-known life." But at the same time, it becomes quite apparent that Charlie is on a spiritual quest, and he wrestles with Ellie with the same kind of moral determination as one finds throughout Melville's pages. In this way, The Whale is not just a family drama about a morbidly obese man's final days, any more than Moby Dick is just a chronicle of a whaling ship. There's something otherworldly about Charlie sitting on his couch. He could be channeling Ishmael: "Me thinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me." There's something metaphysical about the landscape of The Whale. It's almost Shakespearean. Or Beckettian.

A few months ago, we had a reading of The Whale with the exact same cast that will perform in our production. I've never experienced anything quite like it. The journey it took us on was so harrowing, yet so beautiful, so cathartic and transfiguring, that the whole room was reduced to silence at the end. After about a minute I quipped,  "Don't worry, they'll applaud at the end when we do it." Applause or no, I'm sure you will be as moved as we all were by this remarkably wise and inspiring play.

–Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
July 2012

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