America's leading dramatist of family dysfunction, Sam Shepard, was back in New York in September with his latest work The Late Henry Moss (produced by Off Broadway's Signature Theatre Company). Critics were mixed about the work, which had been seen in a different, longer, version in San Francisco a year earlier, but there was no question about the quality of the design, especially Christine Jones' scarily empty setting and Michael Chybowski's lighting, which accurately tracked the play's shifting moods and time frames.
The Late Henry Moss begins with a classic Shepard setup, in which estranged brothers Earl (Arliss Howard) and Ray (Ethan Hawke) meet over the corpse of their father Henry, who has died under rather mysterious circumstances. Ray's persistent efforts to discover the truth behind Henry's death leads him into a morass of family secrets and horrific memories. Jones' setting placed the action on a nearly bare stage with a raised deck surrounded on three sides by textured walls. (Two of the walls were separated from the deck, allowing Chybowski room to treat them with ground rows.)
The LD says his job was to “distinguish between reality and dream, night and day,” and to find a look for scenes involving Conchalla, Henry's earthy companion, who is a mysterious presence in the action. Thus, the play's early scenes, in which Ray and Earl bicker over the past, had a distinctly warm feel, thanks to the use of an amber tone from the GAM 300 range. GAM 885 Blue Ice also provided the cold white look for flashbacks detailing the brothers' unhappy history, with Lee 200 double CT blue added to the mix. Also, says the LD, “Because I knew the audience's eyes would adjust to the L200, I added a pipe with R68 [Sky Blue] to keep it cool.” In contrast to these looks, the scenes featuring Conchalla, also flashbacks, are a riot of color, many of which, Chybowski says, were taken from Teresa Snider Stein's costume designs. These included Rosco 358 Rose Indigo, R339 Broadway Pink, R21 Golden Amber, a Rosco green, and the GAM amber, all of which created what the designer calls “a hyper-charged dream world.” Lighting equipment was a combination of the theatre's inventory along with rentals from both Big Apple Lights and Fourth Phase.
Given the set's configuration, Chybowski was apparently limited in his choice of positions, particularly in terms of sidelight, but he says this wasn't a big problem. “In this case, low sidelight wouldn't have worked, because there wouldn't have been anyplace to put it. If you can put some sidelight in, a little downstage of where the actors are, you can still sculpt people and show their faces.” The designer has worked with Jones many times before, which helps account for the seamless blend of scenery and lighting in this production.
This was Chybowski's first experience with director Joseph Chaikin, who has maintained a distinguished career in spite of his aphasia, which renders verbal communication difficult. “He's incredibly nice,” says the LD, “and he's very good at expressing himself. It can take a little while to figure out what he's saying, but he's aware when he's not clear, and it sorts itself out.” Thanks to him, and his designers, the production achieved an air of mystery and foreboding. The Late Henry Moss ran at the Signature through November 4.