"The Whale" lands at Town Players

PITTSFIELD — Director Jackie DeGiorgis first ran across playwright Samuel D. Hunter's work several years ago. She had read his 2011 Obie Award-winning "A Bright New Boise" and that drew her to some of his other work, notably "The Whale."

"I couldn't put it down," she said during a pre-rehearsal interview at the Whitney Center for the Arts on Wendell Avenue, where her production of "The Whale" for Town Players of Pittsfield began a two-weekend run on Friday.

"I knew it would be technically difficult," DeGiorgis said in classic understatement. "I knew it needed the right actor (for the lead role)," Charlie, a morbidly obese 600-pound man in his 40s who can barely maneuver through his small apartment in a rundown building somewhere in Idaho where he earns a living teaching online writing classes, primarily helping students write and edit essays.

"I knew I would need a creative, experienced costumer to build the fat suit for my lead actor." So, she put the play away.

That she's finally getting her shot at this offbeat, often blunt adult drama is the result of having directed a member of Town Players of Pittsfield, Laura Gardner, in a production of "Harvey." According to DeGiorgis — a science teacher at Drury High School who has acted in two Town Players productions and acted and/or directed with Mill City Productions, Ghent Playhouse and Circle Theater Players — Gardner invited her to direct for Town Players.

"I finally agreed," DeGiorgis said, "but only on the condition that I could do 'The Whale.'"

The Town Players board approved.

DeGiorgis found her Charlie in Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon, a voice actor and storyteller who has performed at Mac-Haydn Theatre, Sand Lake Players, Ghent Playhouse, Classical Theater Guild, and at Bard College at Simon's Rock. "The Whale" is his Town Players debut.

Charlie is at a critical point in his life. His heart is weakening. He is divorced. He finds sexual release watching porn videos. His closest and only friend is a nurse, Liz, who stops by routinely. A young Mormon missionary turns up at his door one day and insinuates himself into Charlie's life. His ex-wife pays an unexpected visit. Most important, Charlie reaches out to his estranged, troubled, teenage daughter, Ellie.

"When Jackie approached me about doing this play, I had just gone straight from one show to another, three in a row. I felt I needed a break," Schane-Lydon said. "I'm always looking for roles that make the time spent (rehearsing and performing) worthwhile. (When) I read the script, (I) felt I had to do it."

It helped that he would be working with Meaghan Rogers (who plays Liz). We've worked together before so it felt familiar."

"The Whale" premiered in January 2012 at Denver Center's Ricketson Theatre and had its New York premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in October 2012.

In many ways, the play, Hunter wrote in an essay for Playwrights Horizon, grew out of his experience teaching a freshman class in expository writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"Though the story of 'The Whale' is fundamentally a story of a father trying to reconnect with a daughter," Hunter wrote, "he's doing so by trying to teach her how to write a good essay. But in teaching her how to write a good essay, he's trying to teach her how to think independently and how to relate to other people. Ultimately, he's teaching her how to have empathy."

Schane-Lydon sees Charlie as being on a path, a mission. "There is not much that will derail him and by the end, he becomes very sympathetic. Charlie is a hopeful man," Schane-Lydon said. "He is not a cynic. He is always filled with hope."

In preparing for the role, Schane-Lydon says he has worked on finding emotional connections and, from a physical standpoint, letting his physical regimen go. From that point, he says, "it's been a matter of letting go and letting Charlie be Charlie."

DeGiorgis feels her own emotional connection to the play. Her youngest daughter was a baby when DeGiorgis and her first husband separated. Her current husband happily took on co-parenting but, DeGiorgis says, "Ellie's anger at her father, Charlie, I know from real life."

Charlie is searching for redemption, DeGiorgis says. "There are so many religious undertones here."

That feeling of redemption also is key to Schane-Lydon, whose hope is that when audiences leave the theater they will think about the ideas — "this idea of redemption," Schane-Lydon says — that Hunter has packed into the play; talk about what they've seen.

"For me," DeGiorgis said, "my wish is that the next time an audience member walks down the street (after having seen this production) and sees a Charlie, to not judge by what they think that person's story might be."

Then, after a toughtful pause, "I just hope we do (this play) justice."

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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