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Delicious Performances, Empty Calories in "The Whale" 

We've all seen the photos of those people who are morbidly obese. They pop up on the internet and in tabloid newspapers now and then, and we all gaze in ghastly wonder at how someone can live within so many mounds of flesh — and what caused them to become so overweight. These are the people we rarely see in person, since they hide themselves away.

But playwright Samuel D. Hunter brings us up close and personal with an enormously fat man in The Whale, now at None Too Fragile Theater. The 600-pound (or so) Charlie is ensconced on his sofa in a dank apartment in Idaho, from where he web-tutors high school students on expository writing while waiting for his ever-increasing heft to end his life. Much like its protagonist, this play contains a wonderful entity struggling to fight its way out of the smothering confines in which it finds itself. And this production only succeeds in fits and starts.

Charlie himself appears to be a bright and caring person, as he gently guides his unseen students by speaking to them through his headset. But his life has been a downward spiral since his boyfriend, a Mormon named Alan, died some years before. Tormented by the conflict between his love for Charlie and the strict moral barriers set up by the Church of Latter Day Saints, Alan stopped eating and began wasting away until he expired.

It is perhaps a bit too neat to have Charlie then acquire a pathology that is exactly opposite to his lover's by eating himself into oblivion. But Robert Ellis brings a gentle gravity and simple gentleness to couch-bound Charlie, making us feel for him in significant ways. Particularly appealing is the way Charlie speaks memorized snatches of the essays his students have written, in his often-wheezing voice, finding in their plainspoken words a beauty he can't access in any other way.

During the course of the almost two-hour play (without intermission), Charlie is visited by some other people each of whom have their own agendas. His closest friend appears to be Liz, a nurse who is also Alan's sister, who brings him fast food while checking on his heart rate. Clearly conflicted — is she feeding Charlie in a twisted attempt to nourish her sibling who starved himself? — Liz is portrayed with bracing directness by Jen Klika.

Another important visitor to Charlie's confined universe is his 17-year-old daughter Ellie, a teenager with a smart mouth and a short temper. She is a little ball of anger since she hadn't seen her dad for more than a decade, and she makes that clear by smashing each of Charlie's entreaties back in his face. Ireland Derry is faithful to the one-note portrayal of Ellie that the playwright has crafted, with precious few hints of an actual person beneath the snark.

As if that wasn't enough baggage to load onto a dying man, here comes 19-year-old Elder Thomas (a credible Jon Heus), a Mormon missionary who lands on Charlie's doorstep and soon finds himself dedicated to bringing this huge man some religious solace. Charlie encourages the young man, since Charlie thinks he can ferret out some information about what happened to Alan when his former flame was dealing with the homophobic precepts of the Church.

Demonstrating a tendency to not leave well enough alone, playwright Hunter works in repeated literary and biblical references to Moby Dick and Jonah, which begin to feel a tad obvious. And once Charlie's ex, Mary (Rose Gabriele), shows up, it feels as if our plate has been piled with a few too many emotional entrees.

Aside from oversimplifying the possible causes of obesity (Charlie was sad so he ate himself fat), the play never digs deeply enough into the relationships that matter. This is because the ancillary characters are forced to tiptoe around the heaving presence of Charlie, conscious of his fragile physical condition and unwilling or unable to confront him in ways that would be more theatrically satisfying — not to mention true.

It is only toward the end of the play that a couple characters begin to speak honestly to Charlie. But at that point, the characters begin weeping and blubbering, burying what might have been some revealing confrontations in a teary, maudlin pile of facile emotion. Director Sean Derry's deft hand is on display here early, in a series of short scenes that end with a pleasing twang. But as the play winds down, he allows easy feelings to take precedence over crisp storytelling, and the impact of the play is lessened.

In a final, possibly pretentious fillip, the actors do not take a curtain call. This is a gesture unbecoming the talented folks who run None Too Fragile, since it could send the message that they believe the emotions released on stage were too monumental to allow for such congratulations. Hey guys, it's a play, these are actors. Share the experience and take your bows.The Whale

Through Feb. 18 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron, 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com

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