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A Tree (Sort Of) Grows Off-Broadway

Date: May 11, 2017

Inside the magical set design of The Whirligig


The script calls for an actor to climb a tree and join another character on a large branch as they peer into a friend's bedroom. They remain up there for much of the play.

That was the assignment Derek McLane faced when he began designing the set for The Whirligig, the new play by Hamish Linklater that's being presented by the New Group through June 18.

That's a serious arboreal challenge for the Tony Award-winning designer, and it's an especially tricky task because The Whirligig has specific demands that make it impossible to just place a maple in the center of stage.

"The play is very fluid, with overlapping scenes and multiple locations, and it goes back and forth in time," McLane says. Therefore, though the tree is a major element, it can't dominate the playing space.

So McLane went for a minimalist look that also reflects the "gentleness, lightness, and lyrical nature" of the show, which is set in the Massachusetts Berkshires, where Linklater was raised.

"The set is really an empty blue box -- not a solid blue but more of a painterly blue -- with a lot of tree branches in it," McLane says. "You see the overhanging branches even when you're [in an interior scene]. There's a hint of fall in the leaves, but it's hard to tell because most of the scenes happen at night."

The plot follows Kristina (Dolly Wells) and her ex-husband Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) as they care for their estranged, ailing daughter Julie (Grace Van Patten). Characters from Julie's complicated past include her childhood friend Trish (Zosia Mamet) and her former drug dealer. As McLane notes, "Practically every character is complicit in some way for Julie's illness, but there's a beautiful forgiveness that happens."

McLane wanted his set to support the production's many nuances and tiny adjustments of tone, time, and space.

"I had originally envisioned that things would track on and off stage, which is partly to do with the size of the space [at the Pershing Square Signature Center]," he says. "But when I started talking with Scott [Elliott, the director], he pointed out the number of times we make these little shifts [in the scenes]. The shifts were too subtle to have things sliding on and off."


An early skeletal model of the multi-level main house where some -- but not all -- of the action takes place wasn't satisfying either. "It was just too much," says McLane, "especially since there were these scenes in the backyard and elsewhere. I decided it just needed to be much simpler."

A turntable now allows everything to glide in smoothly. Windows on the back wall light up in different scenes, giving the right sense of location. And branches everywhere give the requisite Berkshire ambience.

And the tree? A large branch was all that was needed.

Again simplicity was the watchword. The trunk of the large maple tree is off stage. You only see the branch.

"What happens is that the character of Trish hears a voice up in the tree," McLane says. "That turns out to be Derrick [Jonny Orsini], but you don't see him at first. She decides to climb up and join him there. The branch with Derrick on it is then lowered as she starts to climb up, so it sort of comes down to meet her. So that's the first time we get a little bit 'magical' with that. As she climbs up onto it, he crawls out on the branch as if the trunk of the tree were off stage.

"When their scene is over, it flies up and out of the way for some of the other scenes -- but they're still up there and then back down when another 'branch' scene is required."

After McLane drew the sketches, the production's engineers went to work and figured out the mechanical logistics of the set piece.

Concerns were for the actors' safety -- they wear harnesses and clips -- and making sure the branch didn't shake too much during their scene.

"Of course we know it's not a real branch," McLane says. "Branches don't fly up and down. But it has to have enough reality and beauty to it that we just go with it. Ideally when we get it just right you won't think about the tree. You will just go, 'Oh, that's so pretty,' and hopefully it will look magical."

Is the result what he thought it would be?

"It seems to be working," he says. Then he adds: "Knock wood."


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Photos by Monique Carboni. Top photo: Zosia Mamet and Jonny Orsini