From the first moment you see him, you know Charlie is in trouble. Enormously obese and wheezing like – well, like a beached whale – he’s the picture of a man in crisis.
In “The Whale,” Samuel Hunter’s intermittently touching but ultimately disappointing drama, it’s hard to watch the sad reality of Charlie’s life – and easy to see the imminent catastrophe that awaits him.
If his fate seems a foregone conclusion, the slender rewards of the new Marin Theatre Co. production, directed by Jasson Minadakis, derive from the exploration of the anguish and deception, loss and self-loathing that can lead a tender soul like Charlie to such a desperate pass.
Charlie (Nicholas Pelczar), a gay man who teaches online writing classes, has been deteriorating since the death of his boyfriend. Now, he’s given up: depressed, pushing 600 pounds and suffering from congestive heart failure, he’s unable to leave his apartment. Sitting on his filthy couch in grubby sweats, it’s clear that he’s been on the path to self-destruction for some time. (The aptly grimy set is by Michael Locher, with lighting by Kurt Landisman.)
Conflicts arise in the first scenes: Liz (Liz Sklar), the sister of his late boyfriend, is a nurse who cares for Charlie, even as she supplies him with a steady stream of junk food. Ellie (Cristina Oeschger), Charlie’s teen daughter, is disgusted by her father’s condition, but seems drawn to him, if only for the inheritance he’s offered her.
Mary (Michelle Maxson), Charlie’s alcoholic ex-wife, warns him that Ellie’s anger can only cause him further harm. A Mormon missionary with issues of his own (Adam Magill as Elder Thomas) wanders into the dysfunctional family circle.
With its allusions to “Moby Dick,” “The Great Gatsby” and the poetry of Walt Whitman, “The Whale” takes its themes seriously – Charlie, for all his problems, is happiest when he’s encouraging his students to think independently.
But Hunter, a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner, is ultimately concerned with the need to connect and the struggle to feel empathy, whether for family, strangers, or oneself.
Minadakis’ production is well-paced, and Pelczar, a terrific actor, plays Charlie with considerable depth and nuance (his costume, an enormous fat suit designed by Christine Crook, greatly enhances his performance.)
The rest of the cast isn’t as successful; by the end, the supporting characters remain fairly one-dimensional. “The Whale” starts big. But for a play about such outsized issues, the final payoff feels pretty small.
Presented by Marin Theatre Co.
Wherer: 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 26
Tickets: $30 to $58
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org