Phil Fiorini is an actor I’ve admired for a couple of decades now, and for good reason: He brings something unexpected to every role he tackles, whether he’s the lead or a supporting player.
Fiorini is literally the reason to see “The Whale,” a play by turns disturbing, comic and tragic now onstage at the Unicorn Theatre. Samuel D. Hunter’s two-act piece is on one level an unforgiving portrait of human decay and remorse; on another, it’s a sentimental tale about a gay man making a last-ditch effort to connect with his estranged teenage daughter. Ultimately, Hunter made safer choices than he needed to.
But while I can quibble with the play and question some of director Sidonie Garrett’s casting choices, Fiorini’s performance is beyond reproach.
Fiorini plays Charlie, a 600-pound recluse somewhere in Idaho. From his small apartment he teaches online courses in expository writing. He never plugs a camera into his laptop because he doesn’t want his students to see what he has become. Charlie is committing slow suicide by eating as a sort of counter-reaction to the death of his lover, a fallen Mormon who starved himself to death.
Charlie remains stationed on his sofa most of the time. To stand or struggle on his walker to the bathroom requires a Herculean effort. If he drops his phone he can’t pick it up. He suffers from congestive heart failure, and he knows that the next episode of chest pain could be his last.
During one such crisis early in the play — a reaction to watching online porn — he gets unexpected help from a young Mormon, Elder Thomas (Jacob Aaron Cullum), who drops in randomly for a bit of proselytizing. Fighting for breath, Charlie hands him an essay on “Moby-Dick” in a red folder and asks the young missionary to read it aloud because that, apparently, is the only thing that will calm him.
Later Liz (Cinnamon Schultz), a nurse and the sister of Charlie’s dead lover, rushes over to tend to Charlie. Liz, an embittered ex-Mormon, is part caretaker and part enabler who keeps Charlie alive while supplying him with buckets of fried chicken and meatball sandwiches.
Charlie invites Ellie (Daria LeGrand), the alienated teenage daughter he hasn’t seen for years, to his apartment, where he offers to write school essays for her and promises her the large education savings account he has dutifully funded. The bitter teenager has an aggressive personality and takes no prisoners. She maintains a blog where she posts unflattering photos of people she knows and writes hateful things about them. There is not a sentimental fiber in her being.
Before it’s all said and done, Ellie has coaxed Elder Thomas into revealing his own secrets, and Charlie is paid a visit from his ex-wife, Mary (Manon Halliburton), who gets drunk fast and reveals that she still has a soft spot for her ex-husband.
Ultimately, that “Moby-Dick” essay returns and becomes the catalyst for the final moments of the play, which deliver one of the most vivid theatrical images I’ve ever seen. Fiorini’s masterful performance is the reason. Suddenly the play’s flaws are brushed aside in a visually indelible conclusion that achieves something close to transcendence.
On the downside, the play’s repeated references to “Moby-Dick” and the biblical tale of Jonah are at, best, mixed metaphors. Is Charlie the whale Herman Melville’s Ahab lived to destroy? Or is he the big fish that swallowed the disobedient Jonah? Perhaps he is nothing more than what he almost literally is: a beached whale. The use of recorded whale songs during scene transitions only adds to the metaphorical confusion.
The supporting performances are OK on their own terms, but the actors never congeal as an ensemble. Schultz is the most effective as the complicated Liz. A key scene between Elder Thomas and Ellie provides some of the best humor in the show.
So while I would not judge this to be a perfect play — far from it — Hunter has given us a unique tale in a form that seems rooted in naturalism even as it flirts with absurdism. The boldness of his approach is admirable.
“The Whale” runs through March 27 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org.