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The themes of playwright Samuel D. Hunter's "The Whale" are visually anchored in the presence of the actor encased in a fat suit to play the 600-pound central character.

Director Jared Greathouse says he was drawn to the play for its allusions to "Moby-Dick," that great literary whale, as well as the story's Mormon Country setting in Idaho. Greathouse's The Hive Theatre Company is presenting a regional premiere of "The Whale" Friday through July 1 at Sorenson Unity Center.

"Just like in 'Moby-Dick,' you see this 600-pound man as grotesque and disgusting through all the play," Greathouse says. "The goal of ours is to make the audience fall in love with this guy" as the story unfolds.

Inventing a character rooted on his couch was a way to tell a story about "empathy and honesty and human connection" while setting the audience at a distance from the opening, the playwright told The New York Times at the play's 2012 off-Broadway debut.

"The Whale" is about Charlie (JC Carter), a reclusive Idaho man who teaches composition courses via the Internet and is consciously eating himself to death. The character is constructing "his own fleshy coffin year by year," is how Hunter describes him. "It's sort of a long-form suicide. In a way, Charlie doesn't hide himself because he's obese — he's obese because he hides himself."

Trapped on his couch, Charlie attempts to reconnect with his long-estranged, embittered teen daughter, Ellie (Carlie Young). He uses the visit of Elder Thomas (Alec Kalled), a hopeful young missionary from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in an attempt to deal with his long-held grief over the death of his partner, Alan, who was raised Mormon.

Despite the tour-de-force character's limited movement, Charlie's story has emotional reach. "This is probably the biggest role I've had, pun intended," says Carter, who labels himself a "very reluctant" actor, much more comfortable as a director.

Carter describes Charlie as a "very sweet man," while the women in his life — his best friend, his angry daughter, his ex-wife — are "forces of nature."

To embody the character, Carter performs encased in a neoprene fat suit, which is hot enough that the actor also dons ice packs underneath. In rehearsals, he says he feels envious of his castmates who can shift or pivot when they come to sit by Charlie on the couch. "I can't," he says, adding that beyond a couple of movement sequences, "I'm stuck."

In the play, Charlie admits that he has always been big, but in his grief, he has chosen to let himself go. "He's come to accept who he is and what he is, and where he is in his life," Carter says.

The show is another ambitious choice for Greathouse and his wife, Tiffany (who plays Liz, Charlie's best friend, who happens to be a nurse), who launched The Hive Theatre Company on a shoestring budget in 2010. The company produces two or three shows per year, usually alternating between an original script and another contemporary work.

The New York-based playwright was raised in Moscow, Idaho, and the way his characters are estranged as they question religious beliefs is one of the themes explored in "The Whale," as well as his earlier play "A Bright New Boise," which was produced last summer by Wasatch Theatre Company.

Despite the play's dark humor, "it's really a character-driven story, and it's all about these people's relationships with each other," Greathouse says. "It seems simple, but underneath the surface there's a lot going on. In Act 2, it all starts to unravel. There's a lot of emotion, a lot of backstory." —

'The Whale'

Hive Theatre Company presents a regional premiere of playwright Samuel D. Hunter's contemporary drama.

When • June 16-17, 23-24, 30 and July 1; 8 p.m.

Where • Sorenson Unity Center, 1383 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $15 in advance; $20 at the door;