There's a 600-pound challenge at the heart of Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale. And it's one the creators at Walking Shadow Theatre Company are more than willing to take on.
The play's title refers to main character Charlie, an English teacher who has retreated to the isolation of his home and is bent on eating himself to death. As the play starts, he is severely overweight and barely mobile.
The first challenge for director Amy Rummenie was to get a "fat suit" built for actor Zach Curtis. The second was to make sure that Charlie's humanity remained.
"In the first scene we see him teaching his English class. He is very smart and very gentle. We get to see him on his own turf, and it quickly sets up his humanity," Rummenie says.
Beyond that, there was the matter of working with Curtis to make sure the movements and actions he takes make sense with his extra bulk. It also became a challenge of staging -- what do you do when your main character is essentially immobile for large stretches of the show?
All of this drew Rummenie and Walking Shadow to the script. It was a piece they had their eyes on for a couple of seasons, but it took some help from Mixed Blood's Jack Reuler to finally hammer down the rights. The show will mark the company's first full production on Mixed Blood's stage (they presented a Minnesota Fringe Festival show there several seasons ago).
As a playwright, Hunter has been hot in the last few years, with accolades and productions following The Whale. Loudmouth Collective will produce a second play by the writer, A Bright New Boise, in January.
"He has really beautiful characters, and the stories are simple," Rummenie says. "We never leave the one room of this apartment. There are a number of interesting characters flawed in very fun ways to play." This ranges from Charlie's estranged daughter to a young Mormon who has abandoned his mission.
All of this played into the work done by Rummenie and the cast in preparation, from looking at issues of weight and self-image to examining the Mormon faith of many of the characters. For example, they brought in some Mormon friends to talk about the faith and its culture. "We got a much more personal perspective than we could have if we had just looked it up," Rummenie says.
All of this -- and literary references to Moby Dick and Walt Whitman -- are in a package full of humanity and humor.
"It is surprisingly funny for such a tragic situation. There has been a lot of laughter in rehearsals," Rummenie says.
IF YOU GO:
The Whale Wednesday 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.