'The Whale': Hunter has written more than a play about a fat guy

For better or worse — and playwright Samuel D. Hunter is smart enough to see it's probably very much for the better — the play titled "The Whale" has become known in theater circles as the play about the really fat guy stuck on a couch.

Every new drama penned in a crowded marketplace needs a calling card, and the opening image of Hunter's "The Whale," which will open Monday in Chicago at the Biograph Theatre after drawing much attention at New York's Playwrights Horizons last fall, is a doozy: As the curtain rises, you discover a man who weighs 600 pounds blinking back at you.

Aside from allowing an audience to marvel at the miracles of fat suits (Dale Calandra, who plays the obese Charlie at Victory Gardens, is nowhere close to that weight), there is the sheer force of an image wherein the main character of a play seems to wear his neuroses right on his body.

You wouldn't say that "The Whale" was the breakthrough play for Hunter, who is just 31, hails from Idaho and studied at the University of Iowa. That title rightly belongs to his "A Bright New Boise."

But there is no question that the New York success of "The Whale" has, well, supersized Hunter's career.

He says he didn't start out writing "The Whale" as a play about a really fat guy. "I did not think that the main character would be 600 pounds," Hunter said in an interview this week.

Rather, he said, he wanted to pen something about empathy and honesty, after musing on such matters while teaching writing at Rutgers University. But such qualities can be ephemeral and, well, "The Whale" has stuck.

And he's fine with the notion that this is the play about the really fat guy on the couch, stuck like a Beckettian hero of his own tragedy. Mostly fine, anyway.

"Well, it does rub me the wrong way sometimes," Hunter said. "But if people come into this play thinking it is about a fat guy, then maybe the journey for them is a bit more surprising."

One interesting question is how much of a role Chicago will play in Hunter's exploding career. Hunter is, for the record, a prolific playwright. "The Whale" (directed at Victory Gardens by Joanie Schultz) is not his only play in Chicago at present: LiveWire Chicago is staging his 2011 work, "A Permanent Image," at the Storefront Theatre. It is a moving piece about a family in crisis, and it sits on my list of recommended shows.

But the main Chicago connection for Hunter is to be Victory Gardens, which just announced him as a new ensemble member. Given all the changes at that theater company, which is still reeling from the force of the transition to new artistic leadership under Chay Yew, Hunter is treading carefully in Chicago.

"It is important," he said, "for me not to waltz into Chicago as a new ensemble playwright and assume Chicago loves me. If they like my work, then I very much want to become part of this incredible community. I am thinking of this as my introduction."

Every theater loves a hit, of course, but few theaters need one as badly as Victory Gardens, which has been suffering through small audiences.

Hunter has been very involved in this production, spending an extended period in Chicago doing rewrites, having input in rehearsals.

At the end of our conversation, he said he expects to premiere three new plays within the next year.

Any in Chicago? "Not yet," he said.


Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

'The Whale'

When: Through May 5

Where: Victory Gardens at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.

Tickets: $35-$50 at 773-871-3000 and victorygardens.org

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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