The end of ‘The Whale’ announced by the play’s writer, actors and directors

Below are spoilers from the movie “The Whale” currently playing in theaters.

movie version “Whale” it ends with a breath, a bright light and a beach. The final image shows a younger, slimmer version of the main character, Charlie, facing the ocean as the sun shines, the waves rise and fall, and his daughter plays in the sand behind him.

If the quiet beach scene has you confused, you’re not alone: ​​That final comeback came as a surprise to playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter. director Darren Aronofsky took up the matter without arguing with him. The overall effect of the ending, however, reflects the final moment of the source material, which the actors and directors of the popular play see as a release that when staged feels common and generally satisfying to the audience in the room.

“Structurally, this play is designed to increase the pressure slowly and repeatedly until it becomes almost intolerable,” said Davis McCallum, who directed an off-Broadway staging in 2012 at Playwrights Horizons. “And then there’s a really soothing relief at the end of the piece – a blackout, a sound effect, and a moment where the audience lives together in that quiet darkness.”

Both the play and the movie “The Whale” center on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a reclusive, extremely obese online writing tutor who has been eating away at himself since the death of his lover, a victim of religious homophobia.

Brendan Fraser stars in the film adaptation of “The Whale.”

(Zoey Kang / A24)

The character is a mix of Hunter’s past lives: a secretly gay boy attending a fundamentalist Christian school in rural Idaho, a depressed adult who quietly self-medicates with food, and a revealing writing instructor for college freshmen (the heartbreaking honest line of the piece “). I guess I have to admit that my life won’t be very exciting” is the actual presentation of one of Hunter’s students).

During “The Whale”, Charlie is visited by his estranged and troubled daughter. Ellie (Sadie Sink), and his disillusioned ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), when Charlie ends their marriage and leaves them both when it is revealed that he is gay; Liz (Hong Chau), a conflicted caregiver who is also the brother of Charlie’s late girlfriend; and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a fundamentalist missionary far from home. Hunter doesn’t shy away from any of the problems the characters are dealing with, but he doesn’t bury you. [them] Martin Benson directing a 2013 staging at South Coast Repertory. “He doesn’t advocate anything, he just writes what he believes is true.”

These characters and their concerns are similar to those in Hunter’s other plays that deal with “the foundation of Greek tragedy: the limitation of humanity’s vision, the place of religion in society, and the desperate longing to escape the lonely uncertainty of life.” Times critic Charles McNulty wrote When Hunter received the MacArthur “genius” scholarship in 2014. “It advances not by a moral point, but by observing its characters’ attempts to either defend their presence in the bunker or reach beyond them—or, more commonly, a combination of the two.”

An actor in a shirt and tie talks to an obese man sitting on the couch at a play.

Adam Magill, left, and Nicholas Pelczar on “The Whale” at the Bay Area’s Marin Theater Company in 2014.

(Kevin Berne / Marin Theater Company)

Throughout the intimate live piece, staged without interruption, all five characters reveal truths that increase the risks of their potential bonds to each other and to the audience.

“These deeply flawed characters actually care about each other so much, but there are just too many barriers to expressing that love or connecting with each other in real ways, no matter how desperate or destructive,” said Joanie Schultz, who directed a 2013 production. Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre. “When some finally do it, it’s gorgeous and almost magical.”

Multiple staging of “The Whale” emphasizes the pressure cooker effect by designing Charlie’s living room, where the entire play is performed, with an added sense of claustrophobia or isolation. For example, the 2014 Bay Area run raised the Marin Theater Company stage four feet and tilted Charlie’s ceiling so that, from the audience’s perspective, the character “dominates the space in a way that intimidates the people who visit it.” director Jasson Minadakis.

Likewise, the off-Broadway version strategically illuminated the space, “so it felt like his room was floating in this dark void,” said director McCallum; Director Schultz said that the Chicago scene positioned the proscenium “like an island in the sea, which was really effective because in some ways they’re all alone on their own island, with all these obstacles,” said director Schultz.

A woman kneels next to an obese man with an oxygen supply tube on his face in a game.

Jennifer Christopher as Ellie and Matthew Arkin as Charlie in Costa Mesa’s South Beach Repertoire in “The Whale” in 2013.

(Scott Brinegar / South Beach Repertory)

In these confined spaces, the actors playing Charlie – each wearing body suits that weigh between 30 and 100 pounds – have charted her curve physically and emotionally. She reveals herself to her students as she tries to nudge her daughter, Ellie, toward an authentic place of self-expression. The intent is that audiences will feel overwhelming satisfaction when Charlie shares that he’s given all of his savings to Ellie, and when Ellie reads the “Moby Dick” article aloud to him, and endures great pain to get up and walk towards him. Charlie takes it as he takes his last breath in the game.

“Every night was a ride and it wasn’t easy to watch or perform,” recalled Tom Alan Robbins, who starred at the 2012 world premiere in Denver. “His goal is to hurt himself, but you want the audience to understand what drove him to do it and that his salvation lies in the relationship he was trying to build with his daughter. You want that last second to be a combination of incredible pain and incredible victory because, no matter how brief, their connection still means something to him. success.”

“Ellie says horrible, devastating things to Charlie throughout the whole episode, but she loves him so much that it doesn’t even hurt him,” said Matthew Arkin, who plays Charlie in South Coast Repertory. “So in that last moment, whatever his flaws, whatever mistakes he made, and whatever he didn’t love enough for, he lived a saved life because he gave everything to save his daughter.”

Whether or not Charlie dies at the end of “The Whale” is debatable. As Hunter’s script wrote, the stage directions for that breath were simply, “A sharp breath. The lights are turning black.” Many theater directors say that the breath may well be his last breath, and then finally his body is freed from aches, loneliness, and grief. “Charlie’s love and bond with Ellie is a gift, and I hope she stays true to her voice and herself the way Ellie gave up,” said Hal Brooks, who directed the Denver premiere.

It can also be thought of metaphorically, imitating “how whales keep themselves underwater for so long and then finally come to the surface” or “take a deep breath before diving into a place they’ve never been,” Schultz said. before,” he said. They didn’t know what to do, clap, stand up or move because they were so attached to Charlie.”

A young woman sitting on a couch next to an obese man sitting at a table in a game.

Reyna de Courcy and Shuler Hensley play daughter and father in “The Whale” at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2012.

(Joan Marcus / Playwrights Horizons)

When asked about the ending, Hunter didn’t clarify Charlie’s situation because he said it wasn’t necessarily relevant. “The final moments of this play and this movie take a little bit of realism and it’s not about this guy in this apartment anymore,” he explained. “The important thing is that he has a bond with Ellie, that he’s done what he’s been trying to do the entire game, and that bond feels real and sincere. There’s an apotheosis taking place, and in the movie, Charlie literally rises from the ground.”

While Hunter didn’t write the beach scene that followed Charlie’s rise to the screen, he described it as “wonderful” and shared a comment about what that could mean: “If this is a flashback to the last time Charlie swam in the ocean, it’s a near time. The family broke up. , what I see in that shot is a man facing the abyss of self-actualization, contemplating the decision he has to make about the different paths he can take.

Maybe she was thinking about what would happen if she stayed in the marriage: Ellie would grow up with a secret father, [his lover] Alan would have been devastated and, as Liz pointed out, he would have probably died long before he was with Charlie,” Hunter continued. He chose a path and chose to seek the salvation that man can find through human connection.”

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