Playwright: Samuel D. Hunter. At: Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; www.victorygardens.org; $35-$50. Runs through: May 5
Samuel D. Hunter once confessed in an interview that he "think[s] about death all the time." A survey of his plays might suggest that the barely-past-30 playwright also spends considerable time thinking about his native Idaho and the esoteric religions proliferating therein, both of which appear to leave an indelible mark upon pilgrims venturing forth therein.
One of these lost souls is Charlie, an online writing teacher bent on suicide following the death of his gay partner from a nervous breakdown leading him to waste away in melancholic despair. Charlie's chosen method of self-destruction, however, is to eat in quantities sufficient to exacerbate such obesity-linked maladies as high blood pressure (you could hear the collective gasp from the opening-night audience at hearing his stats) and congestive heart failure. Like any dying man, he receives visitors: his late lover's sister (who also acts as his medical caregiver), his embittered ex-wife, his estranged daughter, and a nervous Mormon evangelist.
The low-comedy potential in this premise is as immediately apparent as the ads for that musical over at the Cad Palace, but don't come to Victory Gardens expecting any but the most grim variety of humor. In the Gem state, we are told, The Church of the Latter-Day Saints is an inquisitory scourge so unflinchingly dogmatic that even its missionaries must struggle to maintain their morale. Teenage Ellie is no cuddly Gleedolescent, but a harpy with a surgical-sharp vocabulary that cuts at whatever comes near it. Then there's Charlie himself, his physical size and immobilityat the start of the play, his weight hovers between 500 and 600 lbs.constituting a deliberate affront to our society's deepest-held values. Oh, and did I mention that the show runs for an intermissionless 110 minutes?
Incredible as it may seem, director Joanie Schultz pulls it off. Will Allan, Cheryl Graeff, Patricia Kane and especially Leah Karpel deliver intensely-focused performances as Charlie's comforters, but it is Dale Calandra (wearing a prosthetic suit like a full-body crinoline) whowell, anchors Hunter's densely textured parable. He forces those who would dismiss Charlie's sacrifice as unnecessary to discard their intellectual arguments until they are left with no alternative but to accept the course he has adopted, even as they cling to the hope that the fate of this Jonahor Ahab, if you prefertrapped within his own nemesis can yet be averted.