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Stray Cat Theatre's The Whale Is This Season's Must-See Production

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Several nice plays opened here last weekend. What's more, there was a lot of chatter among theater types about the bazillion or so dollars donated to one of our local playhouses. But if culturally minded people remember anything about Valentine's weekend, 2014, it will be this: That was the weekend Ron May and Damon Dering brought us The Whale.

Phoenix is home to other theater masterminds. Yet when David Ira Goldstein brings us a stunning Long Day's Journey Into Night, or Michael Barnard offers an agreeable Streetcar Named Desire, they do it with decades of experience and giant boxes of money behind them. May and Dering are only lately outgrowing their wunderkind status, and with each of their productions (and not all have been winners), they're putting their hearts and increasingly tiny budgets on the line with every performance. With The Whale, they have combined forces -- May as director at his own Stray Cat Theatre; Dering in the lead of this marvelously complicated play -- and turned out the must-see production of the season.

See also: 10 Must-See Plays During the 2013-14 Valley Theater Season

Samuel D. Hunter's story about a morbidly obese man seeking redemption at the end of his life has had other, more high-profile productions in the recent past -- at Chicago's Victory Gardens, for example, and New York's Playwrights Horizons, certainly. But not having seen them, I didn't find myself holding back tears at those. Stray Cat's production did me in.

In a fat suit, Dering plays the beleaguered title character, Charlie, a distance-learning professor who teaches expository writing from the filthy sofa on which he's marooned. (Eric Beeck's drearily smart set design provides pages of background on the dismal grayness of Charlie's life.) He bribes his mean-spirited teenaged daughter (a darkly comic Michelle Chin), whom he hasn't seen since she was a toddler, to spend time with him during these last days of his life. The pair meet (and ultimately save) a young Mormon missionary played guilelessly by Austin Kiehle, and are harangued by Liz (in a neatly calibrated performance by the dependable Anne Marie Falvey), who loves Charlie in spite of his appearance, his pretense (Hunter crams the play with allusions to Moby-Dick and the story of Jonah and the whale), and his endless litany of sputtered apologies.

So, too, do we, thanks to Dering's artful performance. He steers clear of scenery-chewing and reveals the fragility behind this dying man's histrionics, with the help of May, who handles expertly the highs and lows of a play that's neither comedy nor drama.

No actress less estimable than Johanna Carlisle could turn up late in the second act of a play this well-built and shift focus from a cast this strong. She does. The scene in which Carlisle encounters her wretched ex-husband after 15 years -- her face registering pity, love, revulsion -- is an entire acting class in itself, a primer of how to emote brilliantly all the way to the cheap seats.

The terrific beauty of this stunning production's final moment belongs not to this exquisite and hardworking cast -- who should all be handed palms for their fine performances -- but to lighting designer Ellen Bone, who places a stylish period on a play that demands our attention, and moreover deserves it.

The Whale runs through Saturday, March 1, at Tempe Performing Arts Center.

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