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Theater Review: California Stage's 'The Whale' Is Eccentric But Captivating

Capital Stage

Capital Stage

Sacramento’s California Stage is presenting a decidedly odd play about a 600-pound recluse trying to sort out his troubled life. The play is called “The Whale,” and the script picked up several awards in New York. It’s an eccentric, but captivating small production.

The lights come up on a room littered with discarded candy wrappers, crumpled bags of chips, and greasy pizza boxes. In the center is a ratty sofa, and a huge, morbidly obese man, pecking away at a laptop computer. He lies there night and day, occasional rising painfully and hobbling on a creaky walker.

The sofa is where he works, eats, and sleeps. He supports himself as an online tutor, coaching college students writing essays.

Reviewing a flippant essay about “The Great Gatsby,” which the student maintains, “ain’t that great.”

"The problems with this essay are painfully obvious. The student has no discernible thesis, almost no analysis whatsoever. What I’m going to do is post the paper in its entirety," he says.

His condition is frightful, he doesn’t allow students to see him or his squalid apartment on camera. Yet he’s an intelligent, caring person. He’s also depressed and regretful. And his compulsive eating is killing him.

A friendly neighbor who’s a nurse comes to check his blood pressure, which is 238 over 134, a statistic that prompts gasps from the audience. He’s so heavy he needs help to get up from the sofa. He doesn’t have health insurance, and refuses to see a doctor, despite frequent chest pains.

Realizing that his time is short, he reaches out to his daughter, who he hasn’t seen in years. She has grown into the archetypal angry teen, and her response is bitter judgment.

"Just being around you is disgusting," she tells him. "You smell disgusting. Your apartment is disgusting. The last time I saw you, you were disgusting."

Still, he tries to patch things up with her, and also with his ex-wife, who’s angry that he left her for another man.

It’s a nearly hopeless situation, yet this strange assortment of characters, including a young Mormon missionary, lingers in your mind long after the play ends. And the central portrait of a dying guy trying to salvage something positive from his messed-up life makes for an unexpectedly moving script.

Actor Joel Mario Rickert, inside a vast padded fat suit, gives a sensitive and sympathetic performance. Granted, this production is simply staged, on a shoestring budget , and the five actors are an earnest if variable lot, ranging from college students to experienced pros. The play features many valuable human insights despite its strangeness and occasional limitations.

The California Stage production of "The Whale" continues in Sacramento through Feb. 12. 

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