In many ways, Enchanted April is the story of people whose lives have been transformed by the beneficial effects of light. Matthew Barber’s new play, taken from the 1992 novel by Elizabeth von Armin (there have also been two film versions), is about four English ladies who flee the damp and depression of wintry London for a month of sunshine and wisteria at a rented Italian villa. They are literature’s first diagnosed cases of SADD, and, on their trip, they get more than a nice rest and some tasty pasta: Marriages are restored, new loves are found, deep friendships are forged. In fact, the only question lingering as the curtain falls is this: Are they really going to return to England?

The two acts of Barber’s play are divided between London and Italy, which means that each act must have its own distinct look. For the current Broadway production, which originated at the Hartford Stage, LD Rui Rita has provided sharply contrasting atmospheres, which vividly illustrate the contrast between London gloom and Tuscan sunshine. The first act, as designed by Tony Straiges, features an arrangement of tables, chairs, and other furniture pieces against a black drop, which forms a unit set depicting the sitting rooms of various residences, as well as other locations. Working within a narrow color palette, Rita uses architectural arrangements of directional beams to carve out different playing spaces for each scene.

The show opens with a jolt; the production’s show curtain features a projection of a newspaper advertisement for the Italian villa. As the play begins, there are a series of lightning effects and a pair of individuals, holding umbrellas, are glimpsed. "Then the show scrim flies out and we start with a single light source look with Jayne [Atkinson, the leading lady] addressing the audience. This approach establishes that we’re not going to be dealing with a kitchen-sink reality," says Rita.

Throughout the act, the look is black and white, even though the light contains some very subtly rendered colors. "There’s blue, but it’s a fairly saturated white blue and since your eye has no reference, it isn’t noticeable as such," Rita says. "It’s the effect of a single, cold, dramatic color. Some scenes are a hair warmer; Wilding’s home [he’s the villa’s owner] is a hair warmer, and their homes are a bit more inviting."

Throughout the act, Rita sets the scene with a great deal of sidelight and some carefully deployed effects. For example, a sequence set in church features a series of projected church windows, created, says the LD, by "a Rosco Colorizer gobo, plus a regular steel gobo, and some slight color-correction, which makes a pale lavender. The effect is a kind of pseudo-black-and-white look. I’m a big fan of taking stock patterns and transcending them a bit--it drives me crazy to see them used right out of the box."

The audience gasps when the curtain rises on Act II, revealing Straiges’ gorgeously designed villa setting. In contrast to the stark, monochromatic look of Act I, the setting is filled with details, including flower-filled trellises and walls covered with trompe l’oeil paintings of various blooms. (Clearly, these ladies are getting their money’s worth!) "Basically, in Act II, I forced the palette to something much more saturated," says Rita. "There’s a lot of gold, especially Rosco 318" (Mayan Sun).

However, Act II follows the course of a day over several scenes, so, says the LD, there "are four different looks, early morning, daytime, late afternoon, and evening." With this quartet of scenes, he adds, "I get to play with the full palette and do a broad scope of things. With all four scenes, I pushed them color-wise further than I normally would. The morning is a fairly pinkish gold. The second daytime scene has bright sunlight diagonal with a yellow gold filling in the shadows." And so it goes, until the evening scene, which casts a romantic mood across the stage.

Whatever his atmospheric effects, Rita made sure to keep an eye on his cast. During run-throughs, he says, "I was feeling that, with the wigs and costumes [by Jess Goldstein], there were some facial expressions that we were missing. So I went back and added a series of front-of-house low balcony rail frontlights; they don’t wipe out the stage picture--they’re just clear white--but they brightened up their faces, added sparkle to their eyes."

Overall, the LD’s plot consists of the standard conventional units. However, he says, he did make use of eight City Theatrical AutoYokes as refocusable specials. "They’re very useful when your space is limited," he says, adding that, at the Belasco Theatre, there is no real box boom position. (In fact, Rita drew the plot, thinking the production was going to play the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, so the AutoYokes were helpful in making the necessary adjustments to the Belasco). The show is controlled by an ETC Obsession II console. Equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase.

In one sense, this was an easy project for Rita, as he has collaborated with director Michael Wilson and the design team (including John Gromada on sound) that, he says, "there’s no second guessing about what the other person is thinking. It’s all about the product--there’s no mistaking someone’s intention. Each and everyone of them are friends." He also credits associate LD Chris Akins, who, he says, "can read my mind."

Next up, Rita is returning to the Williamstown Theatre Festival (he is a Williamstown habitué), where his projects this summer will include a starry revival of The Threepenny Opera (with Betty Buckley, Jesse L. Martin, and Melissa Errico), and Big Bill, a new play by A.R. Gurney about tennis champ Bill Tilden. Meanwhile, Enchanted April, which has been nominated for Best Play and Best Actress Tony Awards (as well as nine Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, including nods for the entire design team), continues is Broadway run.

Photos: Carol Rosegg