‘The Whale’: Beauty and redemption for the hopeless

Robert Layman / Staff Photo
Charlie, left, played by Matthew Riley, gets his blood pressure checked by his hospice nurse, Liz, played by Diane Laccardi.

Janelle Faignant

At the end of a staged reading of Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning play “The Whale,” this past the summer, a surprising number of people in the audience stayed to talk with the cast.

“It resonated with them,” said Matt Riley, who read the part of the main character, a 500-plus-pound man named Charlie. “It also convinced me I had to play the part this fall.”

Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre will open its 13th season with “The Whale” beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, in the Brick Box at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre, and running through Nov. 11.

“The Whale” tells the story of redemption and finding beauty in unexpected places through Charlie, an online writing teacher confined to his small apartment after the death of his boyfriend, “beached” on his living room couch.

“The issues in the play are timeless, but also timely,” explained director Joanne Greenberg, who also directed the staged reading. “You get to see beyond the shock of this character, (and) your own snap judgments about him, and see he’s a beautiful person. It’s encouraging us to confront intolerance and protect vulnerable people. I think that’s all really important right now.”

Riley said, “Charlie creates the ability for people to feel and express their own struggles without feeling judged. Who better than someone who is judged at first glance by everyone.”

When Greenberg cast Charlie, she was looking for an actor who could “carry the depth of this character,” and the process of becoming him first involved embodying his physical weight. The 60-pound fat suit Riley wears “plays a big part of how I approach the character, and it’s a big part of what drew me to the character, too,” he said.

In addition, several monologues and 60 pages of dialogue in the script belong to Charlie. Riley said his preparation has been “an every-waking-moment” process.

“Every time I’m in my car I’m listening to recordings I’ve made of readings of the script,” he said. “This is the most intense prep I’ve had for any role.”

But, although the play addresses difficult emotions and situations, it’s ultimately uplifting. In her director’s note to the cast, Greenberg wrote, “How do we appreciate that, as Charlie says, ‘People are amazing’? All people. ‘The Whale’ refuses to shy away from harsh and sad realities, its ultimate message (is) to be one of hope.”

“When we did the staged reading in the summer, people were really moved by the play. I was amazed,” Riley said. “Each person’s experience was unique (but the) core that resonated with them was something they wanted to share and talk about. Which is what theater does better than any other medium in that accessibility.”

Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre

Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre will present Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” in the Brick Box at the Paramount Theatre, 30 Center St., Rutland, at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2-4 and 9-11, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 5. Tickets are $20; call 802-775-0903, or go online to www.paramountvt.org.

Janelle Faignant

Janelle Faignant is a freelance writer living in Rutland.

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