It's early yet, but it's hard to imagine a more unsettling play this season than Goodnight Children Everywhere. Richard Nelson's drama, which opened in May at New York's Playwrights Horizons, begins with the reunion of four London siblings (three sisters and one brother), aged 17-21, just after the end of World War II. The family was decimated by the war: Both parents are dead. Eldest sister Betty stayed in London, while younger siblings Ann and Vi were dispatched to Wales, and little brother Peter was sent to a family friend in Canada.
Now Ann is married to Mike, a much older doctor, and is carrying his child. Betty works as Mike's nurse. Vi is a struggling actress. Peter has just returned home. It's a joyful situation on the surface, but there are darker intimations underneath. Goodnight Children Everywhere is a drama of psychological displacement, expressed in the characters' increasingly neurotic behavior, including an incestuous encounter that is all the more disturbing for its non-explicit, matter-of-fact presentation.
One of the most notable aspects of the production, which was directed by the author, was its palpable atmosphere of shabby gentility. "It was important to make each detail as real as possible," says costume designer Susan Hilferty, whose work did a great deal to underline each character's identity while also suggesting the quiet desperation of their lives. In fact, the designer notes, the war had an enormous effect on clothing of the period. "The history of deprivation is very deep," Hilferty says. "Everything was rationed, starting very early, as early as 1940. The amount of fabric one could use was specifically dictated; women's skirts became shorter because they were allowed to use only a certain amount of fabric." The designer's research included pattern books and magazine articles dedicated to remaking items to extend their usefulness. "In the play, one of the sisters talks about how to make snug slippers out of old felt hats--people were remaking, reusing, mending, darning." One key moment shows Vi drawing lines on the back of her legs to create the look of seamed stockings. In fact, Hilferty notes, "There were actually riots when Dior established the New Look, which required yards and yards of fabric. Women, especially in England, were outraged, because they couldn't get the fabric. They were so desperate to keep up with fashion, but they were presented with something that was completely impossible."
To find the right clothing for Goodnight Children Everywhere, Hilferty and Linda Ross, her assistant designer, drove through New England, checking out vintage clothing stores. "We collected a wardrobe; it was very much what you would do for a movie," Hilferty says, adding, "then we filled in with pieces we really needed but couldn't buy."
They targeted New England, Hilferty adds, because items that are available in New York are "beautiful vintage pieces--fabulous purses, fabulous shoes. One of the hardest things to find was a regular, beat-up old purse. We needed things that were really worn." For the sisters, especially, she wanted it to look as if "all the clothes came from one closet; they'd always be overlapping and doubling up."
Nevertheless, the designer sought to give each of the sisters her own distinct silhouette. Betty thinks of herself as a spinster, even though she is barely into her 20s. So Hilferty gave her a more severe look, with tailored skirts and blouses, along with ankle socks and tie shoes (the script makes a reference to her thick ankles). Betty also works as a nurse, so a period uniform was obtained from Angels & Bermans in London. Vi was given a slightly more stylish, accessorized look, an indication that she makes more of an effort than her sisters. For the scene in which Vi describes a sexual encounter with a producer (a futile attempt at getting a job), her depressed state of mind was expressed in a simple, unadorned dress. Ann is ambivalent about both her marriage and impending motherhood; she was dressed in flowing dresses with flower patterns, "clothes that are very body-conscious," a signal that the character is trying to hold on to her youth.
Of course, Hilferty notes, not every single item could be found. "The trickiest pieces are the sweaters," she says. "They don't last, and the cut of them is very specific to the time period." Thus she had several skirts and blouses made, as well as one of the men's suits, and a cowboy outfit that Peter wears in a moment of levity. Some of the items, she adds, were copies of found items, redone in more appropriate colors. Most were built in the Playwrights Horizons costume shop, run by Therese Bruck, with the exception of the man's suit, which was built by Mr. Morelli, formerly associated with Philadelphia Costume Co.
Hilferty used a rather limited color palette, an appropriate choice given the look of the set and the characters' reduced circumstances. But she also opted for "shocks of color," including a pair of green shoes for Vi's brown suit and yellow for the cowboy suit. "I didn't want to make it so drab that it was inexorable; there is also a lot of comedy in the play," the designer says.
Hilferty's work blended beautifully with the contributions of scenic designer Thomas Lynch, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, and sound designer Raymond S. Schilke. "Every part of the project was a dream and the work with Tom and Jim was very much of a piece," she says, adding that the sound design made a crucial combination as well. All in all, a much happier family than the one onstage.
Wigs and hair for Goodnight Children Everywhere were by Glenna Williamson. Christopher Peyerson served as assistant to the costume designer. After receiving a number of good reviews, the production was held over at Playwrights Horizons until the middle of June.