Scott Greer is a big guy, a hearty 6-foot, 285-pound Philadelphia thespian who usually takes on what Orson Welles called "king roles" - Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, Valere in La Bête, Frank Rizzo in local playwright Bruce Graham's forthcoming play of the same name. Greer even played Welles in It's All True.
But no role could be bigger than that of Charlie, the miserable, 600-pound gay man in Samuel D. Hunter's darkly humorous play The Whale, which opens Wednesday at Theatre Exile's Studio X.
Directed by friend and fellow actor Matt Pfeiffer - they are an Exile twosome with North of the Boulevard and Shining City to their conjoined credit - The Whale finds Greer's wheezing character stuck on his couch 10 years after his partner's death, stranded in a cramped apartment, eating himself into an early grave, yet grasping at reconnection with the family of his past, before he left them, lost love, and let himself go.
"There are indications," says Greer, pointing to Charlie's suicidal food trip, "that when his partner died, he stopped caring. People get addicted to food as they would alcohol. Vanity flies out the window. I'm not saying there's a 600-pound person inside us all. Still, it's not hard for me to imagine putting one's feelings into something that takes you out of a painful situation."
Personalizing that ache is a nice touch for Greer. The actor internalizes heartache and Hunter's tender obsessions to the point of fragility, while balancing the script's - and Pfeiffer's - desire to claustrophobically portray inescapable stasis.
"The playwright explores grief, regret, and redemption in an unusual circumstance, one that's inertially theatrical," says Pfeiffer, before mentioning how well "best friend" Greer seconds the emotions Hunter has given Charlie.
"Hunter is compelled to explore humanity, the humanity encased in our imperfect, fumbling selves," Exile's producing artistic director, Deborah Block, says of the playwright's literary disposition, perhaps influenced by his time at a fundamentalist Christian high school. "He works to crack people open, break through our defenses, until he gets to the person underneath."
Literally and figuratively, it's difficult getting to the underneath of Charlie. OK, there's the "fat suit," a layered, 50-pound-plus monstrosity - created by Allison Roberts and Jill Keys - a long-sleeve compression garment "that wicks sweat, with foam padding, batting, beans, and poly-fill sewn into spandex pockets atop it," says costumer Roberts, who has crafted fat outfits for actresses Grace Gonglewski (A Moon for the Misbegotten) and Catherine Slusar (Wanamaker's Pursuit).
With The Whale suit's clunk and weight, Roberts feels there's a true skin-shedding every time Greer gets out of costume. "I've noticed release when we remove the suit - is it emotional or just physical lightness Scott feels? Either way, he's done an excellent job transforming movement and demeanor to go with the suit and the character. Last night, I looked at Scott and forgot I knew him, a terrific feat for such a recognizable actor and someone I've worked with for 13 years."
Greer has lived with Charlie for a while; he did a staged reading of the play early last year at the Arden Theatre, which first held performance rights for Philadelphia. But "they couldn't very well do two father-dying-daughter-reconnecting plays," Greer chuckles, referring to the Arden's current, similarly themed Under the Skin, by Michael Hollinger.
When he considers The Whale, Greer concentrates on issues of disconnectedness and loneliness as much as he does the character's layers, suited-up or not. "In rehearsal, I would work in costume for several days, then not, to focus on what motivates him."
There's the progressive sickness thing, the technical elements of wheezing - Charlie has congestive heart failure. "The first time I read the play on stage, I passed out, because his breathing is so shallow and labored - per stage direction - that he can't get through a sentence. I hyperventilated."
It's as if Greer is playing several characters at once, or more precisely, operating a large puppet from inside. "It's definitely several jobs at once, changing everything about you - the breathing, the weight of the suit, the way I move and act."
Greer notes that Theatre Exile often tackles plays most local companies wouldn't ("Who else would commission Bruce Graham to write about someone as polarizing as Rizzo?" he wonders, recalling that show's staged reading, which led to near-fistfights between playwright and audience).
And he mentions how fortunate he is to have been offered such a variety of characters to play. "I'm always interested in doing things I've never done," he says, mentioning Rizzo, Graham's elder romance Stella & Lou at People's Light & Theatre Company, and To the Moon (a Honeymooners-like comedy penned by his wife, Jen Childs, for her 1812 Productions) before returning to The Whale.
"Charlie is definitely someone I haven't played before. Though there's all that sadness and regret, the play is chaotically good, and he's a sweet, gentle guy within it, relentlessly positive in the face of all that tragedy."
Through March 1 at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St.