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By ERIC GRODE
Samuel D. Hunter is well aware of how audiences will react to the first image in his new play The Whale: As soon as the show begins, we see a 600-pound man who is barely able to take two steps without hurting himself.
"It's not something that we like to see in the media all that much," Hunter says of morbid obesity. "I wanted to set it up where the audience was keeping this character at arm's length at first, and then gradually shrink that distance."
Cetacean metaphors run throughout The Whale, which is now in previews at Playwrights Horizons. Moby-Dick (which actually has The Whale as its subtitle) and the Biblical story of Jonah both play significant roles in the emotional development of the characters, which include the protagonist, Charlie (a heavily paddded Shuler Hensley), and his furious, estranged daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy).
But the play's title obviously alludes to Charlie as well, who is nearly unable to move from his badly sagging living room couch. This gives him enormous trouble, and it also challenged his creator. "Shuler is very, very static because of his size, and so there were a lot of narrative pitfalls," says Hunter, who gradually gave the character a bit more mobility through the use of a walker and a wheelchair. "A lot of the workshops have been devoted to letting the other characters' journeys sort of sprout up around him."
Those workshops had a permanent effect on the casting: All five current actors were part of the script's early development, and after holding auditions for the Playwrights Horizons production, Hunter and director Davis McCallum eventually stuck with the original group.
While Hunter says he and Hensley both did research to help understand "the nuts and bolts of what it's like to weigh 600 pounds in this apartment," he came to realize that the differences outweighed the similarities among this population. "The more I read about it, the more I realized just how idiosyncratic it is the way people gain the weight and carry the weight and deal with the weight."
In fact, the initial idea for The Whale was not Charlie's size but rather his occupation, as a virtual instructor in expository writing. (He does his teaching with a microphone.) Hunter himself was teaching expository writing at Rutgers University at the time, and "I knew I wanted to write something about it. I'm not very good at essay writing, and I never was, and the students hated what they had to write. The obesity came later in the process."
Hunter, 31, has already received an Obie Award for his last play to reach New York, A Bright New Boise, and earlier this month, he won the prestigious Whiting Award on the strength of his work thus far. But despite having several commissions in the works, including a position as resident playwright at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage in 2013, Hunter is also carving out some time to revisit these earlier plays.
"The first draft is quick for me, but the process is endless," he says. "I'm still making changes on A Bright New Boise. I can't imagine ever getting to a place where the works are set in stone and done."
Photo of Shuler Hensley and Cassie Beck by Joan Marcus