By Christa Lawler for the Duluth News Tribune
In 2016, Jody Kujawa played Charlie, a 600-pound shut-in with congestive heart failure, the on-his-last-legs lead of “The Whale.”
Not long after it closed, Kujawa was in a similar role — as himself.
The local actor had been feeling off enough to agree to go to urgent care, was quickly shuffled to the emergency room and ultimately found himself with an audience of about 10 doctors and nurses who seemed to be waiting for him to die, he recalled recently.
He was fatigued and winded after light activity. He was retaining water. His blood pressure was incomprehensible. He wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis.
“In some weird way, it’s the best thing that happened to me,” Kujawa, 43, said. “I feel better than I did in my 20s.”
A year later, everything is different. He has cut out meat, processed food, booze — except for when local rock ‘n’ rollers The Dames played their reunion show. The one-time loud and proud Top The Tater fan has swapped it out in favor of hummus. He tries to get an hour of cardio a day.
In the meantime, he has gotten good reports from his doctors and dropped 100-plus pounds. There is no immediate threat of diabetes, and his sleep apnea and depression have abated.
And if you think he is eyeing the food you put in your mouth, you’re right.
“It’s frightening for me to watch people eat processed foods,” he said.
Director Julie Ahasay had the perfect role for Kujawa, she told him when they were walking down the street together one day.
Charlie, a Herman Melville fan, is dying in his rural Idaho home, which is overrun with pillows, papers, containers, wrappers, crumbs. He has about two weeks to live, and in his final days, he encounters a friend, an estranged daughter, an unexpected religious visitor.
For the role, Kujawa wore 50 pounds of anatomically correct padding to make him look twice his size. He stopped trimming his toenails because he didn’t think a 600-pound man would be able to do that.
The costume, which took a team to mount on his body, was outfitted with ice packs to keep him from overheating. He consumed a gallon of water a day, plus Gatorade.
And he spent so much time studying symptoms and consulting with heart patients that he assumed his own fatigue, pallor and aches came from mimicking a man with the disease.
Meanwhile, at home, his partner April Ellingsen was worried.
“One night they had rehearsal, and there was an ambulance in front of the building, and I thought, ‘I wonder if that ambulance is for him,'” she recalled. “During that show in particular, the way he was feeling, I didn’t know what was happening with him.”
But, Ellingsen said, Kujawa is the kind of person who needs to come to things on his own.
And at the theater, castmates and crew knew he was going through a physical challenge.
“It was hot, it was uncomfortable,” Ahasay said. “He didn’t look well. He was kind of the wrong color. I think all of us were sort of thinking it had to do with the physical effort he was putting into the show and playing someone so ill.”
Then: life mimicked art.
After ‘The Whale’
Kujawa wasn’t feeling well. His breathing was labored and he was fatigued. He was in a low-impact children’s show and struggled to climb three steps.
Ellingsen said she tried to get him to make a doctor’s appointment, but it was going to take weeks to get in. When he agreed to go to urgent care, she knew something was really wrong.
His blood pressure was 267/180 — similar to Charlie’s in “The Whale.”
The diagnosis was a relief to Kujawa, who had secretly feared that he had lung cancer.
“I was a little stunned because of how young he is,” Ellingsen said. She has a family member who is living with congestive heart failure.
“This is doable,” she remembered thinking. “And we’ve caught it before he had a heart attack. We found out what the problem is, now we know how to deal with it. We caught it before something terrible happened.”
The lifestyle change was immediate. Kujawa cut out processed foods, salt, and adopted a vegetarian diet. He began spending an hour a day on a treadmill. The first 50 pounds dropped quickly. Then he began losing at a rate of about 10 pounds per month.
Eventually his doctors told him that he had to have some sodium.
On a day he got a good diagnosis from his doctor, he recalled thinking: “I’m going to put some cheese on this rice bowl.”
Kujawa is nearing the end of a run of a bucket-list role. He’s George in “Of Mice and Men,” a theatrical adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel — one of Kujawa’s favorite books.
It’s the story of migrant workers traveling together. George is smart, methodical, a dreamer — and the self-assigned keeper of Lennie, a childlike, hardworking giant with no sense of his own strength or boundaries.
Kujawa is centered, subtle, focused in the role. He shifts seamlessly between Lennie’s frustrated charge and big-hearted empathy for his longtime companion.
He looks different, more like a high school photograph of himself. His eyes are brighter. His skin is clear.
“There’s a lightness to Jody now,” Ahasay said. “No pun intended. He thinks about life in a different way,” and it’s reflected in his approach to the role.
It’s a dream part for him, Ellingsen said.
“I love watching him on stage,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. It’s who he is. It’s what he loves doing. Watching someone do what they love, investing their time and energy into it, their essence.”
Kujawa said the lifestyle changes have had unintended results: His sleep apnea had caused him to stop breathing 100 times an hour, he said. That’s no longer a problem.
“The first night I had a dream, holy cow,” he said. “How was I even alive?”
Recently, Kujawa saw a short film by Jason Page that he had made before his diagnosis. In “Context,” which gets a public screening from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 23 at 315 Gallery at Washington Studios, he plays opposite Mary Fox as a couple on a first date.
Seeing himself like that was startling, he said.
“I was big; my eyes were bulged out,” he said. “I looked like I was going to die.”
These days, Kujawa is getting a lot of positive feedback from friends and people familiar with his work — including the inevitable “I wish I could do that.”
“You can,” he said. “You just have to make a decision.”
If you go
What: Wise Fool Theater’s production of “Of Mice and Men”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Harbor City International School, 332 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: $20 adults; Sunday is pay-what-you-can at the door
= = =
What: World premiere of “Context,” a film by Jason Page
When: 6-9 p.m. Feb. 23
Where: 315 Gallery, Washington Studios
Tickets: Free, open to the public
Jody Kujawa talks about his diagnosis, his lifestyle changes and “Star Wars” in this week’s episode of Pressroom Podcast.