Suddenly Last Summer is one of the more infrequently-revived titles in the Tennessee Williams catalogue, possibly because this tale of madness, corruption, and cannibalism is hard to make convincing for modern audiences. The action takes place in the jungle-like solarium of the house of Mrs. Venable, a sinister New Orleans matron, and if the design doesn’t create the proper hothouse atmosphere, the play is not going to work. For its recent revival at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, set designer Annie Smart enclosed the stage in a Plexiglas® box with large greenhouse windows. Painted directly onto the the windows were giant translucent leaves, depicting Mrs. Venable’s experiments in botany and suggesting the repressive atmosphere of her home. Behind the leaves was a similarly rectangular white cyc box.
photo: Ken Friedman
LD Chris Parry worked with the set’s many aspects to effectively light the production, shooting some gobo treatmentes and color washes directly therough the plexi walls to bring them to various kinds of life, then providing smooth, colorful cyc washes which also backlit the painted walls, rather like a bounce drop would have done. "The colors that really worked on the surround were a range of green-based blues, lavender, and--surprisingly--red," he says. "With all those green leaves onstage, you'd better be careful, but the lavender worked better than I thought it would. There was something in the paint treatment that really responded to it and created an alternative reality. The red worked by making the jungle leaves look murky brown and surreal." As the play's tone shifted from external reality to inner torment, the cool greens, blues, and whites of the greenhouse became distorted lavenders, overripe pinks, and dark reds.
The cyc washes created certain important effects, as well, such as the shilouette of the psychiatrist, Dr. Sugar, hovering on the balcony, observing Catherine, his young patient; the cyc lighyts also revealed other characters mysteriously seen wandering through the exterior jungle on the ground-floor level.
photo: Chris Parry
To solve the practical problems of lighting the plexi walls and the exterior space behind them, says Parry, "We had to design a basically square rig that fit between the Plexiglas wall and the cyc. Luckily, Annie gave me enough room--I told her I needed 6' and she gave me eight. Set designers will often give you 3'. Also, it’s a very deep theatre, a big stage very well equipped, so available space was never a problem."
Placement of the cyc lights was an issue that required much discussion, Parry says: "Annie said, 'I don't want to see the borders!' She was very keen on creating a set floating, without any 'visible' masking above it to hide the lighting rig. This meant that the trims for the electrics were very high--around 38-40', above a 24' set and cyc. But where to put the cyc lighting and keep it masked out of view? We had a long to and fro about my needs and hers. I wanted to put the units immediately behind the top of the plexi walls--at about the same height as the top of the cyc box--but Annie was unhappy with that solution because she felt that you would see these black shadows through the translucent wall. I had to admit that she was probably right. In the end we came to a compromise where the cyc units were placed about 4' above the set and were masked by a 'black masking box' that mirrored the shape of the walls. It worked beautifully and we were both happy and relieved. The master electrician, Eric Fulk, and his team were really supportive in engineering the right positions to execute my design--and keep Annie happy, too."
photo: Chris Parry
Parry says that director Les Waters wanted to create dramatic looks for the aria-like speeches that make up the play. The climax features Catherine, the heroine, recalling to a psychiatrist an appalling act of violence that she witnessed, so Parry literally put the character under an cross-examination light. "I used a 2.5kW HMI unit overhead for that speech," says the LD. "We couldn’t afford louvers, so I turned it on and it faded up, which was nice, then, as time went on, it became so harsh and insistent that it took over the rest of the lighting." During this sequence, the rest of the lighting was reduced to sharply focused specials on the doctor and Mrs. Venable, creating a minimal yet gripping stage picture. (Many light cues were tied to Michael Roth’s sound effects.)
photo: Ken Friedman
The HMI unit also helped create a strong closing moment for the production. "Les didn’t know how to finish the play," says Parry, "because it sort of trails off, with Catherine on the ground in tears, and the doctor saying, 'Well, maybe she is telling the truth....’ I said, 'How do we get the HMI unit out when we've got past the climax?’ Les said, ‘Turn it off and let's see.’ It created a kind of snap blackout, which helped make a 'film-cut' at the end of the play." Parry is a vocal advocate for the use of unusual lighting sources, and frequently makes use of HMIs in his work. Still, he adds, "You have to talk people into using it. I’m not sure how much it cost." The rest of the gear package consisted of the theatre’s inventory of ETC Source Fours and Wybron scrollers, with control provided by an ETC Obsession II.
The result was a production in which, according to a review in the San Francisco Examiner, was "a stillness that builds to breathtaking tension." (The San Francisco Chronicle also praised "Annie Smart's astonishing New Orleans garden set lit in cool greens and steamy violets....") Parry is on a roll; after Suddenly Last Summer opened, he came to New York to light Talking Heads, a two-part collection of monologues by British playwright Alan Bennett. The designer lit Talking Heads in Los Angeles last year; in New York, the same production, now at Off Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre, starring Lynn Redgrave, Kathleen Chalfant, and Christine Ebersole, has earned some of the best reviews of the season.