The 'cathartic release' of 'The Whale' explained by the play's actors and directors

The following contains spoilers from the movie "The Whale," now playing in theaters.

The movie version of "The Whale" ends with a breath, a bright light and a beach. The last visual shows the sun shining, the tide rising and falling, and a younger, slimmer version of the lead character, Charlie, staring out into the ocean as his daughter plays in the sand behind him.

If the serene seaside scene confused you, you’re not alone: That final flashback was a surprise to playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter, as director Darren Aronofsky tacked it on without discussing it with him. But the ending’s overall effect echoes the final moment of its source material, which actors and directors who’ve staged the popular play consider to be a release that, when performed, feels communal and generally satisfying for the audience in the room.

“The way it's structured, this play is designed to slowly and repeatedly turn up the pressure until it almost can't be tolerated,” said Davis McCallum, who directed a 2012 off-Broadway staging at Playwrights Horizons. "And then it has this really cathartic release at the end of the piece — a blackout, a sound effect, and a moment where the audience just lived in that silent darkness together."

Both the play and the movie "The Whale" center on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a reclusive, morbidly obese instructor of online writing classes who has been eating himself to death since the passing of his lover, a casualty of religious homophobia.

The character is an amalgamation of Hunter's past lives: as a closeted gay kid attending a fundamentalist Christian school in rural Idaho, a depressed adult who silently self-medicated with food, and an expository writing instructor for college freshmen (the piece's heartbreakingly honest line "I think I need to accept that my life isn't going to be very exciting" is an actual submission from one of Hunter's students).

Throughout “The Whale,” Charlie is visited by his estranged and troubled daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), and his frustrated ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), both of whom Charlie abandoned when he ended his marriage and came out as gay; Liz (Hong Chau), a conflicted caregiver who is also the sibling of Charlie’s late lover; and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a fundamentalist missionary who is far from home. Hunter doesn't shy away from any of the issues the characters are dealing with "but doesn't bury you in [them] either," said Martin Benson, who directed a 2013 staging at South Coast Repertory. "He's not advocating anything, he's just writing what he believes is true."

These characters and their concerns are similar to those in Hunter's other plays, which tackle subjects "fundamental to Greek tragedy: the limitation of humanity’s vision, the place of religion in society and the desperate longing for relief from the lonely uncertainty of life," wrote Times critic Charles McNulty when Hunter received the MacArthur "genius" grant in 2014. "He proceeds not with a moral point but through observation of the way his characters either defend their bunkered existences or attempt to reach beyond them — or more commonly, some combination of the two."

Throughout the intimate live piece — which is staged without the escape of an intermission — all five characters reveal truths to each other and the audience that raise the stakes of their potential bonds.

"These deeply flawed characters actually care about each other so much, but there are so many obstacles for them to express that love or connect with one another in real ways, however desperately or destructively," said Joanie Schultz, who directed a 2013 production at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater. "So when some of them finally do, it's gorgeous and almost magical."

Numerous stagings of “The Whale” accentuate the pressure-cooker effect by designing Charlie’s living room, where the entirety of the play unfolds, with an extra sense of claustrophobia or isolation. For example, the 2014 Bay Area run raised the Marin Theatre Company stage by four feet and angled Charlie's ceiling so that, from the audience's perspective, the character appeared to "dominate the space in a way that intimidated the people who visited him," said director Jasson Minadakis.

Likewise, the off-Broadway version strategically lit the space “so that it felt as if his room were hovering in this dark void," said director McCallum; the Chicago staging positioned the proscenium “like an island in the sea, which was really effective because they're all alone on their own islands in some ways, with all these barriers to connection," said director Schultz.

Within these confined spaces, the actors who played Charlie — each wearing body suits weighing anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds — charted his arc physically and emotionally. As he attempts to nudge daughter Ellie toward a place of authentic self-expression, he too reveals himself to his students. The intention is that, by the time Charlie shares that he's giving his life savings to Ellie, and endures great pain to stand up and walk toward her as she reads her "Moby-Dick" essay aloud to him, the audience would feel the overwhelming fulfillment Charlie gets during his final breath in the play.

"Every night, it was a journey, and it wasn't easy to watch or to perform," recalled Tom Alan Robbins, who starred in the 2012 world premiere in Denver. "His goal is self-destructive, but you want the audience to understand what has driven him to do this, and that his redemption is in the relationship he tries to forge with his daughter. You want that last second to be a combination of incredible pain and incredible triumph because, however briefly it is that they connect, it's still an achievement for him."

"Ellie says terrible, devastating things to Charlie throughout the whole thing, but he loves her so much that it doesn't even hurt him," said Matthew Arkin, who played Charlie at South Coast Repertory. "So in that final moment, whatever flaws he had, whatever mistakes he made and in whatever ways he couldn't love himself enough, he lived a life redeemed, because he gave everything to save his daughter."

Whether Charlie dies at the end of "The Whale" is up for debate. As written in Hunter's script, the stage directions of that breath simply read, "A sharp intake of breath. The lights snap to black." Many theater makers say that breath could very well be his last inhale, after which he is finally freed from the pains of his body, his loneliness, his grief. "The love and connection that Charlie gives Ellie is a gift, and hopefully she will remain true to her voice and herself in a way that he gave up on," said Hal Brooks, who directed the Denver premiere.

It also could be considered in a metaphorical way, mimicking "how whales immerse themselves for so long underwater and then they finally come up to the surface," said Schultz, or "a deep intake of breath before diving in somewhere they've never gone before," said Shuler Hensley, who played Charlie in the New York run as well as a London staging in 2018. "It's a brilliant ending, because audience members have constantly told me they couldn't breathe afterwards. They didn't know what to do, whether to applaud or get up or move because they've become so connected to Charlie."

When asked about the ending, Hunter didn't clarify Charlie's status because, he said, it's not necessarily relevant. "The final moments of this play and this movie abandon realism a little bit, and it's no longer about this guy in this apartment," he explained. "What matters is that he's connected with Ellie, he's done the thing that he's been trying to do throughout this entire play, and that connection feels real and genuine. There's this apotheosis that happens, and in the film, Charlie literally ascends off the ground."

Though Hunter didn't write the beach scene that follows Charlie's onscreen ascension, he called it "marvelous" and shared an interpretation of what it might mean: "If it's a flashback to the last time Charlie went swimming in the ocean, close to when the family fell apart, what I see in that shot is a man staring down the abyss of self-actualization, contemplating the decision he has to make about the different avenues he can take.

"Maybe he was thinking about what would happen if he stayed in that marriage: Ellie would have grown up with a closeted father, [his lover] Alan would have been miserable and, as Liz points out, would have probably died way before he did when he was with Charlie," Hunter continued. "Choosing to stay or leave, both paths are complicated and tragic in their own ways, but ultimately, I think Charlie took the more hopeful route, and chose to look for the salvation one can find through human connection."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.