By Donalevan Maines
Step aside, Shepard. There’s a new Sam in town.
Okay, he isn’t here, but his most successful play is, as Bayou City Theatrics introduces out playwright Samuel D. Hunter to Houston audiences with the April 8–24 regional premiere of The Whale at the Kaleidoscope.
Not conceding any ground, however, is the old master himself, as Sam Shepard’s drama Fool for Love is the inaugural production (through April 16) in the new, “permanent” home of The Landing Theatre Company, which has docked at 1119 East Freeway (Providence Street). Fool for Love was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984, and it’s directed in Houston by Brandon Weinbrenner. Robert Altman directed Shepard opposite Kim Basinger, Harry Dean Stanton, and Houston’s Randy Quaid in a (poorly received) 1985 movie version.
For decades, Shepard was the go-to guy for plays about the American West, sometimes-indecipherable dramas about cowboys, horses, drunks, and violence. Now comes Hunter, whose plays are set in his home state of Idaho (of all places). No cowboys, no horses, no drunks, no violence to speak of, just realistic, heartbreakingly beautiful characters painted with incredible generosity.
I’ve only read Hunter’s published works, The Whale and A Bright New Boise, but they are everything.
In The Whale, Charlie eats everything in sight, which is why he’s a 600-pound gay man, early to mid-40s, who rarely moves from his nest on a couch. Stage directions explain that the couch “sags in the middle, reinforced by several cinder blocks.”
Charlie holds a claw for reaching “a whole universe of full, empty, and half-empty food containers (doughnuts, candy bars, fried chicken, burgers, two-liter soda battles, etc.).”
What kind of sideshow attraction is this seemingly sadly grotesque character?
That’s what 19-year-old Elder Thomas (from the Mormon church) wonders when he knocks on Charlie’s door, then enters to find him wheezing loudly, perhaps having a heart attack while masturbating to gay porn on a laptop.
The play has three more characters, whose inner turmoils aren’t nearly so physically manifested as Charlie’s obesity.
They include Charlie’s ex-wife, his daughter, and his best friend. “It is heartbreaking to see so many characters with so much heartbreak, but they are still functioning, still trying to be together,” says Brandie Frye, who helped out director Colton Berry design and construct the “fat suit” for the actor who portrays Charlie. “Even with all the anger, you can tell how much love that you know is there,” adds Frye. “It is a very touching piece of work.”
Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The Whale manages to be about so very much at once: writing, parenting, teaching, religion, body image, overeating, the price paid by gay couples born in the wrong state or just a few years too soon. But most of all, The Whale is a remarkably eloquent exploration of the way the need for honesty overwhelms us when we sense that our time is short.”
In 2013, The Whale won both the Drama Desk Award and the Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding play 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 out Fun Home author Alison Bechdel. 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.”
Berry says The Whale engulfs a myriad of controversial issues, bringing them to the center of conversation, while maintaining a heartwarming and often hilarious evening of theater.
“When I first read Hunter’s brilliant play, I was instantly and wholeheartedly moved,” says Berry. “It struck me profoundly, and I knew that this work should be produced in Houston immediately. Hunter’s expert finesse of the dialogue is simply stunning. There are times, in rehearsals, that I catch myself feeling as if the actors are simply improvising their way through the plot. It really flows in such a natural manner that it is hard to believe you haven’t accidentally stumbled into Charlie’s apartment and found yourself in the center of a real-life conversation.”
Berry adds, “I couldn’t have asked for a more incredibly talented, enthusiastic, and professional cast. Travis Ammons is an utter genius. His attention to detail and 200-percent level of commitment is astounding to watch. Natasha Gorel brings an edge to the character that is riveting. She is completely relatable and shatters my heart as the play progresses. Jacob Perkel hits the nail on the head with his innocence and naivety. He handles his extremely complex character with passion and precision. Emily Brown has created one of the most hilarious, yet completely grounded characters I have seen on the stage in a very long time. Her dry and sometimes abrasive Ellie highlights this actress’ incredible ability to be completely enveloped by the character, without missing a beat. Katrina Ellsworth, though seen for only a few short moments in the play, fills the space with presence and gut. Her heart-wrenching scene with Charlie is astounding.”
The production runs Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m., April 8 through 24, at Bayou City Theatrics’ downtown theater, The Kaleidoscope (705 Main Street, Suite B, facing Capitol). Tickets are available for purchase ($30–$35) at www.BayouCityTheatrics.com, or by calling the box office 832.817.8656. Tickets are available at the door, although BCT encourages purchasing tickets in advance to secure seating in their intimate venue. Convenient cash parking is located less than one block away at the corner of Capitol & Fannin, in the SAKS’ garage.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.