By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If the production were in a different theatre, the lighting for The Snow Geese might not be so emotional, or at least, it might not be emotional in the same way.
But it's always like that: The shape of a room, the placement of a wall, or the height of a ceiling can dictate the stories being told with light and shadow.
As he worked on The Snow Geese, which is now on Broadway in a co-production between Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater, lighting designer Japhy Weideman was relieved that the Samuel J. Freidman Theatre literally gave him the space he needed to tell the right tale. The play, written by Sharr White, follows the spiritual and financial turmoil of the Gaesling family near Syracuse, New York. Just before America enters World War I, the Gaeslings, including their fragile-but-resilient matriarch Elizabeth (Mary-Louise Parker), are coping with the death of Elizabeth's husband and the uncomfortable surprises he left behind. In every scene, there's a Chekhovian blend of buried truths, volatile feelings, and the cheery foolishness that any family uses to get through the day.
Weideman's design needs to reflect this tumultuous world without distracting us from the plot. It needs to honor both the power of the story and the realistic aesthetic of the production. And that's why the design of the Friedman is so important. In the first scene, for instance, the characters have breakfast before sunrise, but the only light comes from kerosene lamps. It's crucial to put those lamps in places that seem "normal" but that also let us see the action."You need a low side angle, which can be really hard to find in most theatres," Weideman says, noting that imposing walls or odd structural shapes can cast bizarre shadows when lighting instruments are low to the ground.
The Friedman's stage has the shape he needed. "When I turn the lamps on, the people just glow magically," he says. "The light doesn't hit the floor, and it doesn't hit the ceiling. It creates shadows on the opposing wall to look like it's really coming from that lamp source, and that's key. That's the thing that makes the magic in those nighttime scenes."
Of course, audiences will probably never notice these details, since good lightning designs typically don't demand our attention. Still, they impact us just the same.
John Lee Beatty's set design, for instance, uses various scrims and painted drops to suggest the deep woods behind the Gaesling's house. By adjusting the color and intensity of the light on those backdrops, Weideman can impact our mood. "It's amazing how just adjusting it 30 percent over the course of a few seconds changes the vibe of the room from feeling warm and inviting to being chilly and tense," he says. "You build the tension by cooling everything down."
That's especially true in a scene where the Gaesling brothers have a heated argument about the family's money. "We slowly start to pull most of the warmth out of the room, but not so much that it's going to give the climax away," Weideman says. "Just enough so that the shadows become stronger and the contrast between light and dark becomes higher. You feel it, but you're not aware of it."
Crucially, one of Beatty's drops is covered with images of trees, but the images are black and white. We don't notice that, though, because Weideman hits the drop with colored light, and the results tell us about everything from the time of day to the family's mood. "We can light that in cool or blue or amber colors, and we light only little pieces of it," Weideman says. "That's always the key---to never reveal too much. You just hit little edges and pieces and find what looks real to the eye."
He adds that until he actually gets on the set, he never knows exactly which colors and contrasts will give him what he needs. "All those things seem so obvious [in retrospect], but you have to play with it a little bit. You always have to learn what it's not before you know what it is."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus