Although the main character in "The Whale" is a morbidly obese man bent on eating himself to death, the play is neither about obesity nor is it about food.
It's about disconnection, says HCC theater professor Tim Cochran, who is directing the Samuel D. Hunter play this month at Holyoke Community College.
The play follows the weighty recluse Charlie, an online college writing instructor, as he desperately attempts to connect with the students he never sees and the teenaged daughter he hasn't seen in years.
"There is a giant rift between him and the world around him," Cochran says. "The author wrote him as a 600-pound man to establish that he has no ability to connect with the outside world. He is literally trapped in his own home."
The HCC Theater Department will present "The Whale" April 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sat., April 23. All performances are in the Leslie Phillips Theater, in the HCC Fine and Performing Arts building.
The play, winner of several awards including the 2013 Lucille Lortel award for Best Play, stars HCC students Karson Baird, of Wilbraham, as Charlie; Kathleen Burke, of Holyoke, as Ellie, his estranged, rebellious daughter; Michael Toledo, of Holyoke, as Elder Thomas, a Mormon missionary; Amanda Delore, of Agawam, as Liz, Charlie's friend and nurse; and Deborah Uller, of Northampton, as Mary, Charlie's ex-wife.
"I tend to direct plays about our inability to communicate," says Cochran. "What it feels like we're doing is trying to figure out how to get two people in a room saying what they need to say to each other so that they can find some redemption or peace or forgiveness. I do think the physicality of Charlie is a metaphor for how big a problem can get when you don't deal with it, when you don't deal with each other."
The play cannot escape its connection to Moby Dick, which is mentioned in the context of a writing assignment and to which its author, Herman Melville, gave a secondary title, also "The Whale."
"It's not a play about Moby Dick," says Cochran, "but there is definitely a metaphor about who the whale is in the story and who is Ahab."
On another level, the play can also be viewed as a symbolic inversion of another famous fish tale, the Biblical fable of Jonah, the whale in the play being trapped in the belly of a ship, rather than the other way around.
The audience too will in a way be trapped. The play has no intermission. Audience members won't be able to escape the immediate visceral discomfort they might feel living for two hours in close proximity to a 600-pound man constantly gorging himself.
"Can we root for him?" says Cochran. "Can we connect with him? Can we understand him? That's the kind of experiment that's at work here."
Tickets are $10 (general admission), $8 (students and seniors), and $5 (members of the HCC community).
For mature audiences.
The Thursday, April 21, performance will be ASL-interpreted.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Karson Baird, foreground, as Charlie, stars in "The Whale," by Samuel D. Hunter. (Right) Michael Toledo, as Elder Thomas, a Mormon missionary, talks to Ellie, a rebellious teen, in a scene from "The Whale."