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By Donalevan Maines
Charlie, the dying 600-pound leading man of the acclaimed tragicomedy The Whale, briefly masturbates onstage to a gay porn video in a production that plays this month at Theatre Southwest (TSW) in the ’burbs.
So, I guess it’s swell that Joseph Moore, the out actor who plays Charlie, felt comfortable “from the minute I stepped into the theater,” Moore tells OutSmart. “It has such a homey feeling.”
A few weeks into rehearsal, Moore adds, “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how to do the scene, find just the right porn clip, and still get the point across that it’s gay. The audience skews significantly older, [so] we don’t want to run them out—but we don’t want to shy away, either.”
Anybody who might storm out in flagrante delicto would surely miss seeing a play of immense depth and humanity.
“I am so into the heart of this character—it’s incredibly moving for me to even talk about,” says Moore. “Charlie is such a sensitive character, and some scenes are so beautiful and remarkable, it’s hard to keep the waterworks from flowing. If I do cry, it shouldn’t be like the ugly crying.”
Moore is a former New York City professional opera singer who just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his relationship with psychotherapist Troy Gremillion, also a former professional opera singer in New York City. “We haven’t married yet; we always say, ‘We’re still not sure,’” jokes Moore, whose operatic background lends itself to the actor’s appreciation of the play’s supersized emotions.
Perhaps in contrast, the show’s director, Scott McWhirter, was drawn more to the dark comedy of out playwright Samuel D. Hunter. McWhirter, who calls TSW his theater home, has even penned a play, A Broken Poet, which he describes as a “minimalist, absurd tragicomedy.”
Moore is a 2001 graduate of Spring Woods High School who is single and living in Katy. He has been acting since he was in fourth grade—including his appearance last fall as Gustin Novak, a radiologist in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is traumatized by an astrological phenomenon in Noah Haidle’s Saturn Returns. In the same production, Moore made his TSW debut as an elder version of Gustin Novak.
Moore credits the late Scott Holmes, who was a TSW fixture, with leading him to the Sharpstown-area community theater. They met a few years ago while performing in a murder mystery at another community theater, about the time that Moore decided to “dip my toe” back into showbiz.
“He just made a big impact on me with his kindness and supportiveness,” says Moore. “He was a really great guy—so welcoming, even if you were reading for the same role. It was shocking when he died unexpectedly [last] July. I took it as a kick in the butt that life is short and I needed to get out there and do theater again. I did Saturn Returns for and because of Scott and his memory. When I saw they were doing The Whale, I read the script and knew, ‘I have to do this show!’”
Regarding the casting of Moore, McWhirter notes that “He has a soft-spoken nature, quiet and unassuming. I was intrigued by such a gentle vocal quality amidst all of this fat.”
Moore, who is over 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, began telling friends, “Bring on the milkshakes.”
Seriously, though, he says portraying the vulnerability of a morbidly obese gay man shouldn’t be much of a stretch. “That part I can identify with, to a certain extent,” he explains. “I struggled with being overweight as a teenager [outside of Philadelphia], so those kinds of feelings of shame and guilt and depression are not entirely unfamiliar to me. More challenging is the physicality. I spend almost the entire play sitting on a couch or in a wheelchair. Playing someone with congestive heart failure is very difficult. [With all of] the shallow breathing, you start to get dizzy and almost hyperventilate. To a certain extent, it is just the opposite of the breathing you do to sing opera.”
Then there’s the fat-suit he will wear, which was still being designed and created by Sam Martinez. “That comes next,” says Moore. “The way I work as an actor, there is an evolution. I have so many lines to memorize, so first, you’re trying the lines on for size. Things shift and adapt, in an organic way.”
As shocking as it will be for some audience members to see Moore, in a fat-suit, performing the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it masturbation scene, the “why” of how Charlie became so heavy should be more haunting than his appearance.
The play takes place in a small Idaho apartment on the outskirts of “Mormon Country,” where Charlie makes a last-ditch effort to reconnect with his bitter, razor-tongued teenage daughter, Ellie. Other characters include his ex-wife, Mary; a young missionary, Thomas; and Liz, the cynical sister of Charlie’s late, gay partner.
In 2013, The Whale won both the Drama Desk Award and the Lucille Lortel outstanding-play award for Hunter, who was born in 1981 in Moscow, Idaho. Now living in New York City, Hunter was awarded a $625,000 “genius grant” in 2014 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, along with Alison Bechdel, the out author of Fun Home.
Announcing the prize, the foundation wrote, “Born and raised in a small Idaho town, [Hunter] sets much of his work in his native region, within the nondescript confines of staff break rooms, cramped apartments, and retirement homes inhabited by ordinary people in search of more meaningful human connections. Despite the stark realism of his settings, Hunter leavens his plays with humor and compassion for the lives he depicts, while juxtaposing the banal circumstances of his characters with literary allusions and larger themes of faith and doubt.”
Moore, who is also a financial advisor living in Spring Branch, says he hopes that Houston’s LGBT community will support The Whale by attending performances. He credits Theatre Southwest with “pushing boundaries” by frequently presenting plays that are “a little edgy.”
Co-starring with Moore are Matt Prideaux, Pamela Pancratz, Rachel Watkins, and Melissa Mayo. The stage manager is Wes Straw. Beverly Hutchison is the show’s dramaturg.
What: The Whale
When: February 17–March 11
Where: Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest
Details: theatresouthwest.org or 713.661.9505
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.