A Whale of a (heartbreaking) tale in Marin

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Liz Sklar is Liz, a nurse and a friend, and Nicholas Pelczar is Charlie, a man who needs friends and nurses in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Charlie receives some help from a passing Mormon missionary (Adam Magill). Photos by Kevin Berne

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, now at Marin Theatre Company is a difficult play to watch. That description might not make you want to run out and buy a ticket, but hold on. Difficult doesn’t preclude greatness.

At first glance, the play, winner of MTC’s 2011 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize, involves a guy in a fat suit. Granted, it’s a really good fat suit (Christine Crook is the costume designer), but faking a 600-pound guy and watching an actual 600-pound guy are very different experiences. But here’s the thing: what actor Nicholas Pelczar brings to that suit is extraordinary.

He plays Charlie, a sweet-natured man stuck on his couch (which is raised and supported by cinder blocks) in a Northern Idaho town (the cramped, dingy set is by Michael Locher). He makes a living doing online tutorials, and his friend Liz (Liz Sklar), who happens to be a nurse, brings him junk food, makes cursory efforts to clean his outrageously filthy apartment and cares for his well being as best she can. It’s a losing battle, what with Charlie’s congestive heart failure and his utter unwillingness (not to mention lack of medical insurance) to consider a visit to the hospital.

Hunter, a savvy playwright whose A Bright New Boise was a wow at Aurora Theatre Company last fall (read that review here), focuses a lot of attention on Charlie’s heart. It’s a broken heart to be sure – the loss of his boyfriend years before precipitated his long, slow suicide by morbid obesity – but it’s a heart capable of tremendous compassion, for his faceless online students, for great writing, for the young daughter he essentially abandoned 15 years before. Physically, it’s no wonder that Charlie’s heart is giving out (we’re told at the top of the play that he’ll be dead by the weekend), but emotionally, it seems a man this lonely and this full of empathy would tax his heart in any condition.

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There are many intriguing layers to this tale, directed with a sure hand by Jasson Minadakis, and though it’s a sad, sad tale, there is also a fair amount of humor, much of it provided by the acidic teenage daughter, played by Cristina Oeschger, who reunites with her father only because she thinks there might be money in it for her.

Pelczar imbues Charlie’s gargantuan body (outfitted in sweatshirt and sweatpants so grimy they rival his sofa for the things you would most want to avoid contact with) with such feeling, that you immediately root for him, even though the odds are decidedly not in his favor. The wheezing, the strenuous effort to journey from the couch to the walker to the bathroom is arduous and hard to watch, but then there’s Pelczar’s sweet face or Charlie’s even sweeter nature there to remind you of the person underneath all that person. Charlie is not just sweet, either. He’s complicated. He’s a gay man who left his wife and child for a man and has sort of paid the price ever since. He had a great love, but that love broke him, and he’s constantly apologizing. He’s on a rough road, and the compassion and empathy he feels for the world rarely comes back to him.

There’s a flash of kindness from an unlikely friend when a Mormon missionary happens by Charlie’s apartment just as Charlie is in the grip of a scary heart incident. Elder Thomas (Adam Magill) wants desperately to believe his faith can actually help someone and he sees Charlie as perhaps his last chance. But Charlie has a tricky relationship with the Mormon Church, and the nature of that relationship is used as a sort of plot-propelling mystery.

The supporting cast, which also includes Michelle Maxson as Ellie’s at-the-end-of-her-rope mom, is fantastic and fits into the docu-drama world of Hunter’s play with ease. There are moments, especially when the playwright bangs the Moby Dick drum a little hard, when the stark realism veers dangerously close to melodrama, but pitfalls are avoided.

The Whale is a tragedy that ennobles a good man. It’s difficult and challenging but also uniquely beautiful.

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale continues through Oct. 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Aurora finds rapture in Boise

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Pauline (Gwen Loeb, center) resolves a conflict between Hobby Lobby employees Leroy (Patrick Russell, left) and Will (Robert Parsons) in Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise by Samuel D. Hunter. Below: Alex (Daniel Petzold) reads some of his work to Parsons’ Will. Photos by David Allen

For a second time this fall theater season, a play is dealing with the Rapture, that moment when believers will ascend and everyone else…doesn’t. First it was the young gay actor in the San Jose Repertory Theatre production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall (read my review here). He worried that as a believer, he would spend eternity without the comfort of his boyfriend, a non-believer, and the boyfriend kind of rolled his eyes and dismissed the whole Rapture thing as nonsense.

Now we have Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company in which a staunch believer has his faith shaken by a terrible event at his northern Idaho church enclave (cult?) and attempts to make a fresh start in the bustling metropolis of Boise.

Like the plays of Annie Baker, Hunter’s drama unfolds against he bleak backdrops of modern life. For Baker it’s places like a rec room or a yard behind a cafe next to a Dumpster. In Hunter’s Boise it’s the break room of big-box hobby supply store and a parking lot. These aren’t places we usually see on stage, and Hunter’s characters aren’t those we’re don’t usually get to know in a theater. That’s what makes Boise such an interesting play, and director Tom Ross’ production heightens that interest with richly detailed, heartfelt performances from each of his five actors.

Want to know what it’s like to be a success in the big-box world? Look no further than Gwen Loeb’s stunning turn as Pauline, the manager of the Hobby Lobby and the person who turned it from a chaotic mess into a profit maker. The folks at corporate are mightily pleased. But Pauline’s recipe for success is unusual, a mix of foul language, quick temper and genuine motherly concern.

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Among her staff are a painfully shy girl with a troubled home life and precious few retail skills (Megan Trout as Anna) and a hothead who expresses his disdain for his job through T-shirt art (Patrick Russell as Leroy). Then there’s the new guy, Will (Robert Parsons) who just moved to town. We know he’s escaping a tragic scandal at his church, but he’d rather nobody knows about that — or that he’s living in his car. He’s also there, we quickly learn, to reconnect with his son, Alex (Daniel Petzold), a high-schooler who also works at the store. Will gave up the baby for adoption and has had no contact since. As part of his fresh start in Boise, he wants to be the father he never was. But Alex, who demonstrates a rather tenuous hold on his young life, is not going to embrace this sudden father with anything but belligerence, hostility and only mild curiosity. The power struggle between these two, with Alex taking the reigns much of the time, is so painfully intimate it’s almost hard to watch at times.

Though the scenes between Parsons and Petzold crackle with resentment, desperation and the soul-deep need to connect, the scenes that really come to life are between Parsons and Trout. Unlikely friends, Will and Anna both have reasons for sneaking back into the store late at night. Trout’s Anna would rather read a book than do anything else, so when she makes an effort to talk to Will, it seems as if everything she says pains her. If she’s not apologizing, she’s berating herself for being stupid. Anna a fascinating character and Trout offers a beguiling performance.

There’s a lot of interest among the characters about what Will believes. Does he really believe in the Rapture? After all he’s been through, does he still believe in God? Those are big questions, and Hunter’s play isn’t afraid to wrestle with them. His ending goes for thought provoking but ends up being more frustrating, which is only disappointing because for two hours, the play gives such vital voice to people whose lives don’t seem to amount to much, but who are, in reality, battling demons and desperately searching for the meaning of their lives.

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise continues through Dec. 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-482 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.