Theater review: A ‘Whale’ of a Performance from Jody Kujawa

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Unless your heart is made of impenetrable stone, Jody Kujawa will break your heart and make you cry, in his unforgettable portrayal of a wheezing, gasping, 600-pound, dying man in Renegade Theater’s production of “The Whale.”

To describe his performance as a tour-de-force doesn’t do it justice. Encased in a prosthetic suit, Kujawa (as Charlie) is basically immobilized, bound to his ratty couch or his plus-sized wheelchair for much of the show.

Yet, with his intensely expressive face, his piercing red-ringed eyes, and even right down to his gnarly toenails, Kujawa makes us believe every moment onstage. He shows in every nuance Charlie’s agonizing physical and emotional pain and his intense longing for human connection.

Those who have only seen Kujawa in his wild comic roles or in his razor-sharp improvisational performances will find that he has many more vivid colors in his actor’s palette. I have been participating in the area theater scene for over 40 years, and Kujawa’s ranks as one of the most affecting, honest performances I have ever seen.

Charlie is filled with grief over the loss of his partner Alan who ironically killed himself by refusing to eat. Charlie then wills himself to die going to the opposite extreme of eating himself to death. Watching Kujawa play this tragic hero, who struggles to breathe as his heart is failing and his blood pressure reaches fatal levels, is shattering.

For the other four characters in Charlie’s orbit, director Julie Ahasay has assembled a topnotch ensemble. Ahasay’s insightful direction brings the most out of a talented cast.

Carrie Mohn (Liz) is utterly believable as Alan’s sister who is torn apart having to watch another person she cares about kill himself by slow degrees, one by starvation and one by overeating. As a nurse, Liz cares for Charlie and tragically enables him by bringing him vast quantities of greasy food.

Playing a Mormon missionary straight out of central casting, Kjell Hinkel (Elder Thomas) brings sparkling moments of humor and pathos as he tries to save Charlie’s soul and to find his own.

Teenage angst and bitterness are the key threads that Agatha Pokrzywinski convincingly brings to the role of Ellie, Charlie’s estranged teenaged daughter. “I kind of hate you,” she tells him, though he insists, “You are the best thing I have done in my life.”

With only a few minutes onstage, late in the show, Michelle Juntunen creates a vivid character. As Charlie’s embittered ex-wife, dressed in a bright green Carhartt sweatshirt, puffing away at her cigarette and swilling vodka, Juntunen brings out the humanity in what could be a one-dimensional role in less capable hands.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter has written a lyrical, poetic and literary script which is fierce, funny and tragic. While it is hard to watch at times, “The Whale” is about some of life’s big subjects: love, loss, forgiveness, religion, salvation, teaching and parenting.

This is the type of compelling script that Renegade Theater does so very well. Their edgy, provocative style is on full display here, with Kujawa centered at the giant, devastating heart of it all.

If you go
* What: Renegade Theater’s production of “The Whale”
* When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, Oct. 20-22, Oct. 27-29
* Where: Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St.
* Tickets: renegadetheatercompany.org

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