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Time to Light the "Donuts"

Date: Oct 21, 2009


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They may be the most indelible images in Superior Donuts: Arthur, the ex-hippie who runs the titular doughnut shop, steps out of the action and delivers monologues about his family, his feelings, and his criminal past. While he speaks, Franco, his brash young employee, moves silently in the background, unaware his boss has left the real world.

These scenes are vulnerable interludes in a grittily funny play about cultural and generational tension. They let us discover the emotion that Arthur buries beneath his stony face and shabby clothes.

Playwright Tracy Letts has a hand in making the monologues work, of course, as do director Tina Landau and actor Michael McKean, who plays Arthur. But the speeches would have less impact without Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design.

Akerlind, who also lit the show’s world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre earlier this year, frames the monologues in a simple white spotlight, dousing almost all the other light on stage. As Arthur speaks, he is starkly visible, but the doughnut shop behind him seems flat and gray. When we notice Franco moving through this ashen space, he’s like a person Arthur only vaguely remembers.

The effect enhances our sense that Arthur’s speeches exist in a different reality. “The monologues are an interesting problem, and I loved what we did with the follow spot,” Akerlind says. “We didn’t mince around with color. We just hit him with a hard, white spot. And it was always to me like the light was emanating from Arthur as the storyteller.”

A white spotlight light puts our focus on Arthur without creating associations that come with a particular color (i.e., red light means he’s angry.)   “I like things that are simple, but that give us a connection to the pores on a face,” Akerlind says. “If you put color on a light, then it has less intensity.”

The simplicity of white light reflects Akerlind’s overall design philosophy, which he rarely sees in other designers’ work. “You get a lot of design for design’s sake, and that just gets in the way,” he says. “Or else the curtain goes up, and the entire thematic attitude of an event is already told by the design. There’s almost no reason to pay attention because you know what there is to know.”

Akerlind’s asceticism even extends to the preshow. Unless they hide the stage behind a curtain, most productions bathe it in half-light while the audience enters the theatre. At Superior Donuts, however, there are no lights on the set until the play actually begins. The doughnut shop sits in shadow while house lights guide patrons to their seats.

To Akerlind, this choice stresses the importance of the production itself. “The idea is that the performance is what’s hot,” he says. “It’s what has to be lit. The preset is decoration, and if we’re serious about theatre, there shouldn’t be any decoration.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor