Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

The Whale
St. Louis Actors' Studio
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's recent review of Xanadu

Nadja Kapetanovich, Thomas Patrick Riley, Lizi Watt,
Colleen Backer, and William Roth

Photo by Patrick Huber
I always just assume it must be great fun to work with the best directors in town. In this particular case I'm thinking of Annamaria Pileggi, who has assembled a terrific cast to stage the inescapable drama of The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter at the Gaslight Theatre

But maybe working with a great director is actually kind of a nightmare, or at the very least a naked, humbling experience. I'm only judging from the flickering shame of William Roth as the play's title character: a 600-pound English teacher teetering on the brink of death. The whole meaning of life seems to come under an intense new lens in The Whale, which made its debut at Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2011, and was produced Off-Broadway in 2012. (It was made into a film in 2022.) This jarringly real new stage revival is produced by the St. Louis Actors' Studio.

It exists in an unexpectedly alien world though. Charlie, a morbidly obese gay English professor, is shut-in in a tiny apartment (on another great set by Patrick Huber, creating a miracle of depth in a tiny space). Charlie is teaching online and constantly urges his students to be more honest in their writing. But he won't even show his face to them. And yet it's not "shame porn." Or is it? Charlie's frequent moments of honest grace and kindness (in spite of the way the world treats him) make us feel dirty by comparison.

It somehow counts for nothing, as the landscape around him seems ruled by a cruel Mormon god, who's already destroyed his gay lover, up in the impossibly narrow "chimney" of northern Idaho: up there in the plunging forest chasms of the Rockies. A weird sense of random religious rule-making, along with Charlie's unbearable physical limitations, adds to a sense of being trapped. On top of that, Charlie's estranged daughter Ellie (played by Nadja Kapetanovich) finally reengages with him for the first time in 15 years: full of teenage rebelliousness, and eager to denounce him and her mother in her own online blog. A young Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (Thomas Patrick Riley), randomly comes to evangelize him and gets swept up in the family drama as well.

But the steady tension on stage makes it impossible to let go of a single moment of any of it. The sense that every kindly outreach must be twisted into a noose of one's own, makes us scramble for a way out in this two-hour play (with intermission). Time whizzes by in a torrent of human misunderstanding. For, as much as he's trying to set everyone free, everyone around him seems to want to shut him down, blaming his overeating, or his seeming misunderstanding of life, or his attempts at making peace with god and family. The people who claim to love him seem bent on abolishing him.

His nurse Liz (the sister of that deceased gay lover), played by Colleen Backer, is constantly attaching new devices to him and urging him to surrender to devastatingly expensive medical care. His ex-wife Mary (Lizi Watt) tries to stop him from rescuing their troubled daughter. And yet, in his performance, Mr. Roth is like some vast, beneficent god over all of them (and his students), until Charlie simply runs out of options.

Mr. Roth wears a "fat suit" designed by Angela B. Calin and built by Laurie Donati of the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California. That full-body prosthetic also adds a visible layer of doom and despair to the story. Although (in spite of the sheer mass of him on stage) there's also a gripping air of fragility in the actor's performance.

There's a sort of transcendence in the end, a kind of English major's escape, and a whiplash moment of fateful comprehension for all the rest of us. Short stories can play beautifully on the stage, as brash miniatures of the clash of human experience. But their meanings are often hidden, like black holes in space–and rarely seen by the naked eye.

The Whale, produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio, runs through April 21, 2024, at the Gaslight Theatre, 360 N. Boyle Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit

The Cast:
Charlie: William Roth*
Liz: Colleen Backer
Mary: Lizi Watt
Elder Thomas: Thomas Patrick Riley
Ellie: Nadja Kapetanovich

Production Staff:
Director: Annamaria Pileggi
Assistant Director: Bryn McLaughlin
Production Manager: Kristi Gunther
Stage Manager: Amy J. Paige*
Assistant Stage Manager: Emma Glose
Scenery and Lighting Designer: Patrick Huber
Technical Director: Caleb D. Long
Sound Designer: Kristi Gunther
Costumes Designer and Prosthetics: Teresa Doggett
Props Designer: Emma Glose
Light Board Operator: Jeffrey Roberts
Master Electrician: Mason Hunt
Set Construction: Caleb Long, Will Higley
Scenic Artist: Andy Cross
House Manager: Lilian Claire Dodenhoff

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association