One of this season’s must-see plays has a mesmerizing, yet unlikely, hero. “The Whale,” produced by off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, features a larger than life leading man. Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley stars as a 600-pound recluse who is slowly eating himself to death.
Following the death of his partner, Charlie has grown dangerously overweight. Not able to move much, he teaches classes online and has very little contact with the outside world, save for a friend who acts both as nurse and enabler. The play, written by Obie winner Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Davis McCallum, follows the lead character’s struggle to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, an unhappy, insolent teenager played by Reyna de Courcy.
The appealing Mr. Hensley, who, it should be noted, is not anywhere near 600 pounds but wearing a special “fat” suit, has the tricky task of maneuvering between the audience’s discomfort and their sympathy. A Tony Award winner for his role as Jud in the 2002 Broadway revival of “Oklahoma,” he also won raves for his inspired take on the Creature in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.” More recently, he appeared in the critically acclaimed Apple family plays, “That Hopey Changey Thing” and “Sweet & Sad” (winning a 2012 Drama Desk Award) at the Public Theater.
Asked recently about what drew him to this particular role, he said, “The script is just so powerful. The story is so beautifully developed by what is said and not said! Sam [Hunter] actually writes in pauses, silences, etc. to help create the mood and tone of each character. He has a rare gift for the rhythm and economy of words.”
Did he have any hesitations in playing this character? Mr. Hensley says, “There is always hesitation and doubt but that eventually lifts when you, as the actor, spend time in the character’s shoes, or in this case, literally his skin. Something happens. You just sort of become the character.”
The play, which opened to positive notices in Denver is in previews at Playwrights Horizons with an opening night scheduled for Monday, November 5.
It’s an unusual, yet fascinating premise for a play: a lead character that can both potentially repulse and engage theatergoers. And so much of it depends on whether the actor playing Charlie can find a connection with the audience, as well as guide the audience from horror to hope.
When asked how he approached this part, Mr. Shuler explains that he is always drawn “to characters that are usually on the outside looking in: The loners, the misfits, etc. These characters are closer to us than we know.” And he says his morbidly obese character is “a sweet, caring, struggling soul trapped in a 600lb body. He wants what we all want: honesty, love, empathy. As an actor, if you can connect to that, then so will the audience. We end up taking the journey together. That’s magic!”
“The Whale” runs to Sunday, December 2. Visit www.playwrightshorizons.org for tickets and information.
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