Jennifer Christopher and Matthew Arkin in "The Whale" at South… (Ben Horak )
The morbidly obese protagonist of "The Whale," the latest play by Samuel Hunter running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, weighs close to 600 pounds, scarfs meatball subs and hasn't left his dingy apartment for months.
Creating the character of Charlie has been a technical challenge for the play's production team, which includes several costume fitters and an Academy Award-winning makeup artist.
By far the biggest challenge belongs to actor Matthew Arkin. For eight performances a week, he must wear a 30-pound costume — he refuses to call it a fat suit — that is made out of Lycra, nylon, micro foam beads and foam sculpted from king-sized pillows. The suit adds 40 inches to the actor's waistline.
PHOTOS: Arts and culture pictures by The Times
To avoid overheating under all of that material, Arkin wears a special cooling vest that is similar to those used by character actors at amusement parks. And then there's the makeup — a prosthetic neck and cheeks, created by designer Kevin Haney, who won an Oscar for "Driving Miss Daisy" and multiple Emmy Awards for shows including "Primetime Glick" on Comedy Central.
Arkin, who has appeared in two other South Coast productions, on Broadway and at other regional theaters (he is also the son of actor Alan Arkin), isn't obese or even remotely heavy-set. To get into character, he has enlisted the help of a fellow performer who knows what it's like to weigh 600 pounds or more.
Ramsey Moore is an L.A. actor who was once dangerously overweight but has cut his weight in half to about 370 pounds in recent months. He has given Arkin insight into what it's like to inhabit Charlie's body.
There is, for example, the matter of the knees. People who are massively overweight tend to walk with their legs locked, Moore said. That's because if they bend their knees, they are more likely to fall, and it's often difficult for them to get back up.
Another issue is body odor. Obese people sweat more and are paranoid about it, and so they tend to shower several times a day. "You can't be big and smelly," explained Moore.
He said growing up obese means "you're often viewed as a criminal. There is no physical way to walk into a room without all eyes in the room looking at you."
Those psychological details aren't necessarily evident in "The Whale," but Arkin believes they help him create a more believable and nuanced character. "So often, stories about large people are done for humor. We laugh at these people," he said.
Shakespeare was guilty of this. He created the jolly Sir Jack Falstaff as comic relief in his plays "Henry IV Parts One and Two" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor." More recently, Neil LaBute's 2004 comedy "Fat Pig" took a more complex view of large people by exploring the budding romantic relationship between a young man and a plus-sized woman.
FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview
Those characters are practically dainty compared to Charlie in "The Whale." Hunter, a 31-year-old New York playwright, said that a major Broadway director told him that the role was uncastable.
"He said we would have to cast someone who was really 600 pounds," said Hunter, who declined to name the director for the record.
The playwright said he was an obese kid growing up in Idaho — the setting for most of his plays — and that he was "painfully awkward and introverted." He is now a trim 6-foot-3 and runs regularly.
Hunter said he drew on aspects of his own obesity for the character, but his real inspiration was a recent job teaching writing at a university in New Jersey. In the play, Charlie teaches an online course in composition to an unseen group of unmotivated students.
Martin Benson, the former artistic director at South Coast Repertory who is directing "The Whale," said it would be virtually impossible to find a 600-pound actor who could perform eight shows a week. He said the company looked through its files of plus-sized actors but they ultimately disregarded girth and went with the best actor for the job.
The makeup design for Charlie was created by Haney in his North Hollywood studio. He initially was hired to create just the neck for the character but found that prosthetic cheeks would also be necessary to achieve the right proportions.
The designer said that the folds of Charlie's neck are made out of a silicone skin backed up with a highly pliable polyurethane foam. They are blended into the silicone cheeks in a way that matches the actor's natural facial hair. "The great thing about silicone is that it moves like flesh," he said.
Haney's other screen work includes prosthetic effects for the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy" and "The X-Files" TV series. But he has worked in theater before, including creating makeup designs for New York productions of "Tru" and "Into the Woods."
The fake neck and cheeks for "The Whale" must be replaced every four days because their edges wear out, said Haney.
"The Whale," which runs through March 31, had its New York premiere last season in a different production at the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons, with Shuler Hensley as Charlie.
When writing the play, Hunter said he wanted to create a character that would repel audiences at first glimpse. "I want them to go from revulsion to empathy," he said. "By the end, I hope he's someone everyone can relate to."
INTERACTIVE: Christopher Hawthorne's On the Boulevards
Depictions of violence in theater and more
PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures