By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Madge disappears in the house, and the next time we see her, she's sitting in an upstairs window, primping. A couple of men watch her from the yard, and we watch her too, aware that even in silence, her youth and beauty give her power over most of the world. High at the top of the set, like Rapunzel in a clapboard tower, she's almost a symbol more than a person.
But is that good? What does a woman lose when she's idealized for her beauty? What does it do to the men on the ground to look at her that way? Those are a few more things to contemplate as we watch her comb her hair.
If we can't see Madge, however, then she won't make an impression at all. And that's why Andrew Lieberman, the set designer for the Roundabout's current Broadway revival of William Inge's Picnic, is such an important part of the puzzle. In a big space like the American Airlines Theatre, he has to be mindful of the story he wants to tell and of the story the room will let him tell.
Inge's story first: A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1953, Picnic follows the working-class Owens family in the backyard of their Kansas home. Their lives change when a mysterious, passionate man arrives to do yardwork for a neighbor, but ends up awakening young Madge. Suddenly desperate to get her life started, the teenager makes choices that shake everyone from her mother to her sister to herself.
From the beginning, Lieberman says, he and director Sam Gold wanted to make this story feel realistic. The pair's most recent collaborations, including Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep, have used non-literal sets, but this time, Lieberman not only designed the Owens' backyard and porch, but also their kitchen and hallways, which we see through windows and open doors.
"The choice was to put a hyper emphasis on the reality of living in a house and the dynamic of backyard interactions," Lieberman says. "We made a choice, which is not in the script, to have the whole interior of the house."
What's more, Lieberman imagined the locations we never see. "There's this whole life that's just past the edge of this place, and there's this sense of an off-stage reality that's very hard to escape from," he says. "In my mind, with the set, the ground plan is all mapped out. Where is the alley? Where is the street? Where is the train? All of that is mapped out in my brain, even though you don't see it on stage."
That kind of planning flavors what we do see. It matters, for instance, that Madge's window doesn't face the audience head-on. It's turned slightly away, which suggests the house is pointed at something beyond our view. "You don't want it to look like you just stuck that dormer right in the middle of the stage," Lieberman says.
But even while he's making artistic choices, Lieberman has to be aware of the building he's in. "The American Airlines is a very difficult space to design for, because the sightlines are horrible," he says. "You just have a tiny little wedge, a little triangle that every seat can see."
He continues, "I decided I was going to be extremely rigorous about everybody in the theatre being able to see every vital piece of information and still make the set look like I never thought about it. Even though I thought about it a lot."
So how does that affect Madge's window? "There was a trade-off," says the designer. "It's on an angle, and some people can see it better than other people. But everybody can see it."
The set is full of choices like that. When Madge's young sister goes to smoke, for instance, she sits in a window on the side of the house. Not everyone can see her, but when she wanders there, it's clear she's trying to hide what she's doing. We'd lose the secrecy of her bad behavior if she was front and center.
"With that, I had to be really clear with Sam and say, 'This is a totally viable space, but for a five-minute scene,'" Lieberman says.
Of course, some parts of his set are so massive that they can't be missed. Behind the house, for instance, there's an iron wall looming over everything. Lieberman says the wall was inspired by the 1955 film version of the play, which features scenes of the Owens' community.
"The movie is very gritty, and you get a sense of the industrial life of the town,"Lieberman says. "I was so entranced by that, and I felt a real lack of it in the play. So I wanted to bring that kind of energy into the set. That wall is a metaphor for a rusting, dying Midwestern industrial town."
And it gives us another way to see Madge, who's still so young and unbroken, when she's sitting in her window.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus