The program for Sympathetic Magic, which played at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre this spring, reveals that this production is playwright Lanford Wilson's 50th collaboration with director Marshall Mason. The design team is made up of familiar faces, too: set designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Laura Crow, sound designer Chuck London, and LD Dennis Parichy, all regular collaborators with Wilson and Mason.
When asked how many plays he has done with Wilson and Mason, Parichy finally concludes that the number "is in the double digits somewhere. I've certainly done 15 or 20 of Lanford's plays." It's hard to imagine he ever had a bigger challenge than Sympathetic Magic; Wilson's play explores a complex terrain where matters personal, theological, and scientific come under close scrutiny. The characters include Ian Anderson, an astronomer who may have made an epochal discovery; his brother-in-law, Don Walker, a gay Episcopal priest struggling with his lot in life; Barbara, Don's sister, who is carrying Ian's baby and doesn't want to have it; Pauly Scott, Don's ex-lover, who now runs a choir out of Don's church, made up of people with AIDS; and Liz Barnard, Don and Barbara's mother, a feisty, much-married anthropologist who is going blind and harbors other, darker secrets.
The play's locations include a lecture hall, an observatory, a church, a restaurant, an art studio, and a terrace. Beatty's set was a neutral space of beige brick which suggested many locations without really being any of them. "It was clear from the beginning that, in terms of setting place and time, a great deal of it would fall on the lighting," says Parichy. Making things a bit more challenging was the set's domed ceiling. Although he knew it would be part of the design, he says, "I didn't expect that it would be quite that large. There was a moment when I thought, except for front-of-house, there are no lighting positions."
Parichy's solution involved hanging instruments on the sides of the ceiling piece, although "it took a good deal of thought before I came up with those side pipes to get some cross light in there. In other circumstances, John might have said no, but he knew I was in a significant bind." Also, he says, "There are 12 or so lights in the ceiling where the dome area is. The big window for the studio warehouse scenes comes from there; the downlight on the restaurant table is in there, too." Another imaginative touch is the addition of ground rows in the troughs that run around the stage area. "That was an idea that John put in; it never occurred to me to use those walls as cycs." They are used most effectively in the observatory scenes, when they give the walls an eerie, science-fiction glow.
As a result of his carefully placed plot, Parichy created a surprisingly large variety of attractive and interesting looks. For the church scenes, he used a rose window pattern on the wall and soft break-up patterns on the rest of the stage area, which gave it an intimate, welcoming feeling. The planetarium, the LD says, was "meant to be mysterious and spooky--the scientific version of a church." He added uplights in the console table where the astronomers work, and used a downlight pool on the actors. There is a startling effect--the suggestion of an opening in the dome, which actually moves. "All it is, is a 50-degree [ETC] Source Four with shutters, which is mechanically moved," says Parichy. "It's on a winch. It took a while to get the mechanics worked out."
Other unusual effects are a bar scene suffused with deep red light, and a series of different colors used on cycs seen through the two rear doorways in the set. "It was done partly for the visual variety," says Parichy. "It comes out of an idea we had early on that when the actors opened the doors, there should something shocking or surprising out there." Although not used specifically to refer to locations, the colors include green, inspired by a golf course referred to in the script, and blue, which comes from the ocean outside Barbara's studio. The effect is achieved by "a teeny little light box back there that the actors have to get around."
Since Sympathetic Magic is so much about the universe, there is, of course, a star effect. "A large part of it is built into the wall," says Parichy. "To carry it out further, since we couldn't afford to build fake side walls that would imitate the theatre walls, in which John was going to have stars embedded, we came up with the idea of two carousel projectors with homemade gobos in them, punched out with tiny pinpoints. To my surprise, it worked much better than I thought it would." He shouldn't be surprised; Parichy's design proves that with a little craft and cleverness one can create a universe of lighting looks in almost any space.
Sympathetic Magic was controlled by an ETC Vision board. Jeremy Kumin was assistant lighting designer; Rebecca J. Mercier was light board operator. Equipment for the production was supplied by Production Arts Lighting. Sympathetic Magic ran through early June.