Off the Wall Theater has a track record of choosing difficult but powerful writing: Its artists have demonstrated good taste and strong interpretive ability. But with Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale — first performed at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2012 — Off the Wall might have found its best marriage of content and execution to date.
This Whale is directed by Linda Haston. The play centers literally and figuratively on Charlie (F.J. Hartland) — he's a man debilitated by his obesity, a man who rarely leaves his center-stage couch. He teaches online writing courses. He has a solitary friend in Liz (Amy Landis), and she doubles as his nurse. But when Charlie makes contact with a daughter he hasn't known since she was a toddler, he begins to look for meaning in what appears to be the end of his troubled and isolated existence.
Ellie is Charlie's daughter. When she re-emerges in his life, she's a bitter, vexed 17-year-old on the verge of failing out of high school. Ellie is abrupt, startling and, as actress Abby Quatro portrays her, nearly unredeemable. Quatro hints at just enough to suggest the presence of noble intentions hidden behind a scaly façade. But at times she's so rough that when Ellie's mother, Mary (Dana Hardy), accuses her of evil, it doesn't feel exceptionally exaggerated.
Quatro's acting choice reflects the fact that pertinent information is concealed for much of the narrative — only to be revealed in a way that shifts audience perspective on what we already know. For example: At first, the titular whale signifies nothing to us other than the dying man on the couch. During scene breaks there are the sounds of ocean waves crashing and receding to reinforce this. But as the narrative pushes forward, we hear excerpts of an essay on Moby Dick. We're let in on a gorgeously simple tale about a barely remembered trip to the coast. The Whale permits us to cast collective judgment — and then it forces us to look back and reject the lazy assumptions we had just a few scenes earlier.