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THEATER REVIEW: South Coast Rep’s “The Whale”

The mammal in question is Charlie (Matthew Arkin), pushing 600 pounds, who sits on his sagging couch in northern Idaho and scarfs down meatball subs when he’s not correcting student writing for his online course.

Charlie pretty much lives on that couch, as his weight precludes him from leaving the apartment or even sleeping in the bedroom. It’s all he can do to heave his frame up to his walker and shuffle to the bathroom.

Once in a while he masturbates to gay porn. Sometimes he has visitors, usually Liz (Blake Lindsley), a nurse who looks in on him. This day a skinny 19-year-old kid with a black book in his hand knocks and enters.

He’s Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner), a Mormon, who wants to bring word of salvation but instead finds a man in obvious medical trouble who refuses to allow a 911 ambulance call. Instead, Charlie wants Thomas to read him an essay about “Moby Dick.”

Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” (winner of the 2012 GLAAD Award for Outstanding New York Theatre in the Broadway and Off-Broadway category) plays through March 31 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Martin Benson directs.

When Liz shows up, she gives Elder Thomas an earful about how much she hates Mormonism because, she says, it killed her friend Charlie’s boyfriend. (There’s a convoluted story here that I’ll leave you to discover.)

OK, so far we have morbid obesity, suicidal tendencies and religion as topics.

Charlie also has an ex-wife named Mary (Jennifer Christopher) and a 17-year-old daughter named Ellie (Helen Sadler). The girl is sullen, angry and cruel (presumably because her dad deserted the family for boyfriend Alan 15 years ago). She also has no friends and is about to flunk out of high school.

Mary is also hurt about the desertion, and angry that “the only reason you married me in the first place was to have a kid, I know that.” She has sole custody of Ellie and tries to keep Ellie and Charlie separated.

So: add desertion, parenting, honesty and longing for connection to the topic list.

Tossing these thematic strands into the stew and giving it a good stir leaves us with two main topics: How do we fill that void inside, the one we’re born with that cries out for connection? And, especially with this psychologically isolated group: how do we develop empathy?

Hunter, winner of an Obie for “A Bright New Boise,” has a good feel for dialogue and a way of using mordant and even morbid humor that catches you off guard.

Hunter and Benson are blessed with a superb cast that pushes the written extremes to the limit, which is both a virtue and a drawback. Sadler’s Ellie shows not a trace of longing for connection with her dad. Mary seems to be unremittingly angry, though it isn’t about money: Charlie’s been sending more than the child support he owes. She’s apparently just unable to help Ellie or to move on emotionally.

Lindsley’s Liz is angry, too, but it’s because she doesn’t want to have to deal with the death of her friend. Lindsley’s Liz is the most accessible character.

Fenner’s young Mormon is a wonder: tentative, a bit timorous but insistent at the same time. He is questing, but not angry.

Kudos to the tech team: Thomas Buderwitz, for his wondrously decaying apartment set, to Angela Balogh Calin for the appropriate costumes and to Donna & Tom Ruzika for their lighting. A special bravo to Kevin Haney for Charlie’s amazing fat suit.

Charlie is a puzzle: though grief apparently will push him to his death, he spends most of his time apologizing to everybody for everything, apparently including his existence. Arkin inhabits the character fully, but I did wonder after a while how many times you have to say “I’m sorry” before you just disappear.

The details

“The Whale” plays through March 31 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:45 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.