The Whale, by Samuel D Hunter | Directed by Shane Anthony

Red Line Productions | The Old Fitzroy Theatre (http://www.oldfitztheatre.com), Woolloomooloo, Sydney | Until 4 March

Set in a tiny, grimy apartment in Idaho, Morman country, The Whale tells the story of Charlie (Keith Agius), a morbidly obese, middle-aged man who is stranded on his sofa, from where he attempts to teach an online course on composition.

Charlie’s best friend, Liz (Meredith Penman), a nurse, attempts to maintain his existence by bringing him food of choice, checking his rapidly rising blood pressure and trying to persuade him to seek medical help.

In the role, Penman convincingly and humorously balances empathy and kindness with efficient medical assistance and is responsible in the altering of pace and on-stage dynamics. It was she who had previously watched Charlie’s lover, Alan, a former Mormon missionary starve himself to death after rejection by church and family.

Samuel D. Hunter’s play is compactly conceived, so as Liz leaves to go and purchase more fried chicken, a young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, arrives.

Alex Beauman plays the nervous but determined evangelical with crisp charisma. He is determined to make a difference but ends up confronting his own demons, ably assisted by Ellie, Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter, who Charlie hasn’t seen in fifteen years.

Chloe Bayliss delivers a classic portrayal of the rebellious teenager, eye rolls and all. But Ellie is much more that merely rebellious and Bayliss skilfully conveys the venom of a teenager who maintains a hate blog. She is also in danger of not graduating and reluctantly accepts Charlie’s offer of help.

Add to the mix Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mother, Mary (Leslie Boren), who Charlie deserted to be with his gay lover, and who now battles with the bottle, and you have an aria of Shakespearean proportions in two acts.

Centre stage at all times is Charlie, who obviously dominates physically, but emotionally as well. He is marooned on a sagging sofa surrounded by empty and half-filled food cartons —static, except when he struggles arduously to the offstage bathroom.

It is an uncomfortable performance to watch but it is also multi-faceted and totally captivating. Despite suffering from debilitating depression, Agius renders a gentle character who is optimistic, honest and empathetic, even though every step is a struggle. It is a noteworthy performance for its accomplishment and endurance.

The Whale begins and ends with the reading of a child’s essay on Moby-Dick, which acts as a parable throughout, and Shane Anthony’s intelligent direction orchestrates these tales of whales and God with great care and subtlety, carefully canvassing the play’s  huge themes — religion, sexuality and parenting, to name just three.

The Whale is not a perfect play but it is an important play. Employing, as it does, the gothic, it is also questions many of the values and assumptions that we in first world cherish.  Thumbs up!

Above: Alex Beauman and Keith Agius. All images: Rupert Reid.

Chloe Bayliss and Keith Agius.

Keith Agius and Meredith Penman.