Theater Review - Freddie Ashley makes his return to the stage in 'The Whale'

Actor's Express artistic director talks about putting his acting hat back on

It has been four years since Actor's Express Artistic Director Freddie Ashley has been on the other side of the stage lights, and the Atlanta theater community is understandably excited to see one of its favorite figures back on stage in The Whale. Ashley was initially nervous about taking on the role of Charlie, a 600-pound man trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter before it's too late, but the thrill of the challenge of this ultimately redemptive story proved too much to resist.

This is the last play in AE's 2014-2015 season, and when actor Wyatt Fenner (Bad Jews, Pluto) first suggested that the theater should produce the play with Ashley in the lead role, the artistic director brushed it off. "At the time, I dismissed it because the idea of taking on that show seemed sort of daunting," Ashley says.

The idea took root, however, and about six months after that initial dinner conversation, Ashley walked over to the whiteboard in his office where he keeps track of the season and wrote, "The Whale."

"I had a very emotional reaction to seeing it there, and the thought of actually going through with it was very exhilarating," he says. "It was a very emotional moment to realize, 'Well, that's the right choice.'"

Whereas Ashley says that the current season has been full of big ideas, high drama, and "high theatricality," he believes that The Whale adds an interesting complement.

"At first blush, people might think it's a very bleak play, but there is a great sense of humor in it, and there's also an overarching thrust of the power of redemption coursing throughout the play," Ashley says, adding that after the first read-through he felt like he had just gotten off a roller coaster, and he expects that audiences "will leave being ultimately uplifted."

As for Ashley's return to acting, don't call it a comeback.

"Acting is my background and I never really planned to give up on acting in a permanent way, but I did shift my focus to directing," he says. "From time to time, a role comes along that has me written all over it, and that doesn't happen very often, so when it did, it just seemed right."

And sometimes it's good to have less on your mind. "I only have to worry about one character, I don't have to think about the big picture and all the various elements," Ashley says. "On the other hand, with acting you're putting yourself out there and being a bit more vulnerable than with directing. With directing you can be a bit more private."

Charlie is an even more vulnerable role than most, as the added size of the character and his self-destructive nature make him an obvious target. Ashley consulted with medical professionals in addition to spending intense time studying his script to ensure that he would be sensitive to the realities of Charlie's situation.

The openness of Atlanta audiences to newer works like The Whale is one of Ashley's favorite elements of working in the local theater community. A native of Rome, Ga., Ashley has been in Atlanta since 1999, and he has served as AE's artistic director since 2007. He cites the enthusiasm for newer works as part of the exciting evolution in our community over time. "I would put the work that happens here in Atlanta up against the work in any other theater community in America," he says. "Audiences have always looked to us to be on the cutting edge, forecasting the trends, not following them."

There will always be room for classic musicals, but Actor's Express and its artistic director are confident that Atlanta audiences include a diverse viewership, many of whom are eager to experience complex, exciting productions like The Whale.

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