THEATER REVIEW: "The Whale"

Charlie laboriously drags himself (with the help of a walker) from an offstage room to his sagging living-room couch. He doesn’t sit, really, but plops, because his morbid obesity doesn’t allow him much grace or mobility. This couch in a messy apartment in Moscow, Idaho is his world.

Charlie (Andrew Oswald) spends a fair amount of time on his laptop, correcting student writing for his online class. Once in a while he masturbates to gay porn. Sometimes he has visitors, usually Liz (Judy Bauerlein), a nurse who looks in on him, straightens up the place and brings him (too much) food.

This day a skinny 19-year-old kid with a black book in his hand knocks and enters. He is Elder Thomas (Craig Jorczak), a Mormon hoping to sell religion. Instead, he finds a man in obvious medical trouble who refuses to allow a 911 ambulance call, but asks Thomas to read him an essay about “Moby Dick.”

Charlie has been eating himself to death since his gay lover Alan died 15 years ago. By now he weighs about 600 pounds and has one week to live. But before he goes, he wants to find out what the Mormon Church did or said to Alan to make him stop eating and will himself to die.

Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” won several honors in New York, and in 2014 Hunter received a MacArthur “genius” grant. “The Whale” plays through June 14 at Cygnet Theatre.

Charlie has another mission before he dies – a “need to know I did one thing right in my life.” For this, he needs to reconnect with 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Erin McIntosh) from a marriage Charlie left for Alan.

He hasn’t seen her in years. When she walks in, he’s face-to-face with a bright but sullen, angry and downright cruel teen who writes a hate blog, thinks “only retards like high school” (in other words, she has no friends), and is in danger of not graduating.

She accepts his offer to help her with the work necessary to get that diploma, which means she’ll spend enough time with her father for mom Mary (Melissa Fernandes) to get wind of it and show up.

Mary has her own wounds to nurse: she’s still hurt about the desertion (no matter how many times Charlie says “I’m sorry”) and the fact that “the only reason you married me in the first place was to have a kid.”

One thing Ellie’s good at is spotting a phony, and when she and Elder Thomas end up in the same room, she sniffs out his secret.

Otherwise, the psychological isolation in this group is palpable. Hunter wants to consider one of the most basic human questions: how do we fill that void and longing for connection after a traumatic event has pushed us inward? And, especially pertinent for this group: how can we develop empathy and compassion?

Charlie shows the way, electing to tear down the his own psychological barriers, even telling his students – previously advised that rewriting is the ticket to writing excellence – to forget all that and “just give me something honest.”

Director Shana Wride has a quintet of pretty extreme characters here, but her terrific cast makes them believable and most of them even sympathetic.

Oswald (who starts out surrounded by ice that ends up warm water in the enormous fat suit on loan from South Coast Repertory, where the show played in 2013) shows the calm of the soon-to-die, the resolve to make right what he can, and a great deal of compassion for the other passengers on this journey.

McIntosh’s Ellie shows what I hope is a truly over-the-top example of the terrible teen years, but even she is finally touched by her father.

Jarczak is a standout as Elder Thomas, the Mormon missionary with a secret.

Bauerlein’s Liz shows both concern and impatience for the uncooperative Charlie. She may seem a bit “ouchy” for a nurse, but she’s Alan’s sister and unwilling to face the imminent and willful loss of a second important person in her life.

Fernandes shows the anger/sadness/flicker of hope of a mother who has done what she could for Ellie and wants desperately for that to be enough.

Sean Fanning’s messy set looks just right for the immobile whale and his neatnik caregiver. R. Craig Wolf’s lighting design effectively indicates time changes. Melanie Chen’s sound design includes the symbolic sound of crashing waves, and Victoria Murphy’s costumes are perfect.

Trying to make sense of life is hard work. Get ready for a rocky but rewarding 110-minute, intermissionless psychological ride, but see this show.

The details

“The Whale” plays through June 14, 2015 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.

Showtimes are: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com