At the Wilma, the set of "Under the Whaleback" is a character all its own

Blanka Zizka may be the artistic director of the Wilma Theater and its new production, Under the Whaleback, but when the time came time to create the interior of a fishing trawler on stage, it was all hands on deck.

The play, by British playwright Richard Bean ( One Man, Two Guvnors), focuses on the perilous occupation of North Sea cod fishing out of the port city of Hull and the industry's decay from the 1960s to present. Sound designer Daniel Perelstein and set designer Matt Saunders worked with Zizka to create staging that depicts both the ship's cramped living quarters and the feel of the open sea, and that frames some of the play's larger themes - fathers and sons, comradeship, danger, death, decline.

One of the chief challenges, Perelstein says, was reconciling the Wilma's spacious scale with the intimacy of the darkly comedic maritime story, a task requiring attention to both sight and sound.

"Oftentimes at the larger regional theaters, the audience is kept at arm's distance away," Perelstein says. "But I think sound is able to bring the audience into it, and immerse them in the experience."

Saunder's set, which Perelstein describes as looking as though "you had taken down the walls of the ship," effectively places the audience "at the center of it." He and Saunders worked closely as the production came together - an atypical scenario, he says, but necessary here.

In order to evoke tempestuous conditions at sea - particularly during a harrowing Act 2 storm - the set had to move. A complicated hydraulic system was installed, and that design factor, Perelstein says, informed his work more than research or familiarity with the ocean: "The movement of the ship is related to the sound, and the sound is related to the movement of the ship."

For her part, Zizka visited Hull to experience what is left of the port's fishing life, and to meet with playwright Bean and the now-septuagenarian fisherman who inspired the play. Its foreign setting, and the facts that the profession is exclusively male and the industry is dying attracted her.

"I'm always interested in plays that bring me into the worlds of others," she says.

Yet in addition to its intriguing specifics, Under the Whaleback's universal themes also were part of its appeal. "You realize that humans all over the place have the same needs," Zizka says. "You want to live, you want respect, you want to be loved, and you want to give love."

She echoes Perelstein in her description of the set: Yes, it has to convey the claustrophobic nature of the trawler men's quarters, "but at the same time, we wanted to create that sense of huge space and the ship being kind of lost in the sea, being alone and lonely."

For actor Pearce Bunting, who has dual roles - Act 1's tough, drunken Cassidy and Act 3's aging Darrell, who no longer works on an active trawler but on a "museum ship" - the play is "almost Greek, it's so big."

Nonetheless, he has focused on the details in preparing: mastering the difficult Hull dialect, doing exercises to firm up his sea legs to deal with the ocean swells.

A veteran of many Philadelphia productions but a resident of Minneapolis, Bunting is lodged 10 minutes from the Wilma. When he's not traveling to Atlantic City to breathe the salt air as he did last week, he's reading about the fishermen of North England, practicing his accent, and writing "Under the Whaleblog," in which he documents his experiences on the set. That immersion, he says, has allowed him to abandon his initial fixation on authenticity and focus on more fluidly embodying his characters.

The interplay between large and small is a hallmark of Bean's script. Weaving together three seemingly disparate stories, the play's final act reveals their interconnection. Perelstein sees the complex sound and set design as "kind of a microcosm of what the playwright has done."

"When you read the play, it reads like three folktales," he says. "And when you get to the end, it feels like an epic."