Walking Shadow Theatre Company isn't the kind of group to give you a traditional holiday show, but The Whale hits a lot of the familiar buttons, just in a decidedly darker, harder, and far more honest way.
At the play's center is Charlie, an English teacher who has fallen on extremely tough times. How tough? He's confined to his grotty small-town apartment after eating his way up to 500 pounds plus. He makes his living tutoring online English classes, and knows that his body can't take the strain much longer.
See also: Walking Shadow Moves to Mixed Blood to Present The Whale[jump]
Samuel D. Hunter's play takes it time to unveil what's troubling Charlie. There is a daughter he has not seen in years, an estranged wife, and a lover whose death ripped Charlie apart.
This gives Hunter a chance to examine the intersection of religion (Mormonism specifically) and sexuality. That gets explored through a young man on his mission and Charlie's friend and nurse, Liz.
Those issues are handled with plenty of grace, letting the anger and pain play out without dragging the show into blind ranting. That kind of balance is all over Hunter's terrific, if extremely difficult to watch, script. These aren't characters who are easy to get behind, but they are decidedly human and loaded with massive flaws.
Charlie's loss of self worth can be seen in his frame. Zach Curtis puts on a fat suit for the role, but he sells the character's bulk in every labored breath and movement. Beyond the physical, Curtis grabs a hold of all of Charlie's complexity and runs with it, producing one of the most memorable performances of the year.
He matches wits with Ellie (Katie Adducci), a teenager so packed with rage its a wonder she doesn't burst into flames. Also running interference is Zach Garcia, who plays Elder Thomas, the Mormon in the midst of both a religious and identity crisis.
And while the show deals with tough characters and situations, it does have a sense of humor, which director Amy Rummenie uses to ease and release tension, though it is never far from being ramped up again.
IF YOU GO:
The Whale Through December 20 Mixed Blood Theatre 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis $10-$22 For tickets and information, call 1.800.838.3006 or visit online.