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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It's easy to imagine a realistic production of Harper Regan, the new Simon Stephens play. As she travels from London to visit her dying father, Harper visits hospitals, bars, hotels, and her estranged mother's house, and at every stop, she has an encounter that's rooted in real emotion.
It would make sense if every scene were just as "authentic," filling the stage with hospital signs or letting the actors mix real drinks. That would emphasize how Harper's story could happen to anyone.
But there's another way to go. In her production at the Atlantic Theater Company, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch reminds us that Harper Regan hovers just above reality, that Harper's on a symbolic journey like Odysseus or Everyman. Actors keep their movements to a minimum, and the set (designed by Rachel Hauck) suggests locations instead of stating them. When it's time to change scenes, we even see the actors push walls into new configurations, reminding us we're in the theatre.
For Upchurch, who also directed Stephens' play Bluebird at the Atlantic last year, this is the approach that makes sense. "Simon's dialogue always seems very naturalistic, but actually there's a poetry to it that's very deliberate and very spare," she says. "It can live in this kind of abstract world, and it doesn't require a kitchen sink."
That's partly why Upchurch keeps the actors so still. "It's very much about finding the tension in the scenes, and quite often when characters are too close to one another or too far away from one another, that tension can collapse," she says. "So a lot of our rehearsal work was about finding what the beats are, acting-wise, and then making sure we weren't doing anything movement-wise that would take away from the tension."
This is especially clear when Harper seduces other characters. Sometimes, the sexual energy is potent because the actors are so far apart.
Upchurch and Hauck brought that "less is more" philosophy to the set. The director recalls, "We started out in a little bit more realistic place with some of the set, but Simon's writing kept wanting to shrug off anything additional that we were putting on top of it. When Rachel and I were talking about what we needed for each scene, I went through to say, 'What's the bare minimum that we can do this scene with?' If we were gonna have one piece of furniture per scene, what would it be?' You have to get very clear about what the scene is and what you're trying to say."
Take an early scene between Harper, her husband, and their teenage daughter. We eventually learn about their terrible history---which also explains why Harper is estranged from her parents---but during their first moments together, we barely know anything is wrong. That's why Upchurch anchors the scene with a big, comfortable sofa. "I really wanted to set up what was great about their family," she says. "Before you find out all the shit they've been through, there's a moment where you think, 'Oh, this is a family. And they get along and they're teasing each other.'"
She continues, "I felt like it was important to establish why we should care about her journey and her family, and I think there's something about what Simon was saying. He's hard on families, and he examines family dynamics very closely, but at the end of the day, there's something about this play that's saying, 'A family dynamic is an important foothold in the world.'"
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.