If King Hedley II, now on Broadway, is any evidence, the 1980s were not August Wilson’s favorite years. Since the Broadway debut of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984, Wilson has been steadily composing a cycle of plays that examine African-American life in Pittsburgh, one decade at a time; Hedley is his 80s play, and, notably, a new note of despair has crept in. The characters are more down and out; their dreams are more desperate. Their neighborhood has declined from a lower-middle class enclave into a crumbling ghetto. The prosperity of the Reagan era has failed to trickle down this far; instead, poverty, crime, and hopelessness have become a way of life. The action of the play follows the title character, whose attempts at finding a better life come to naught, and who, in a bloody climax, must confront the devastating truth about his ancestry.

The curtain rises at the Virginia Theatre on David Gallo’s setting, which more resembles a war zone than an urban neighborhood. The action takes place in the common backyard shared by Ruby, King’s mother, and Stool Pigeon, her eccentric neighbor. Between these two buildings is an empty space, where a third house was once situated. There are other buildings at stage left and right in a state of mid-collapse, with fully furnished rooms exposed by missing walls. The ground in the backyards is parched. Junk proliferates everywhere. One wall carries a faded advertisement, showing Willie Mays pitching Alaga Syrup, a popular product from the 50s.

Gallo says that, having designed Jitney, Wilson’s last staged work (on which he collaborated with Hedley’s director, Marion Michael McClinton, and lighting designer Don Holder), he was armed with plenty of research about the Hill District, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where these plays take place. “I’ve been called to task on occasion,” he says about the Hedley design, “by some who say the degree of destruction is exaggerated. It isn’t. There are things there that would shock you, although it’s a different neighborhood than it was in the 80s. In recent years, some people have built extraordinarily beautiful homes there, although with gigantic security fences around them.”

The designer drew his ground plan from the script. “It specifies three houses, one of which is missing and this open space provides access to the street. The action takes place in the backyard of these three houses.” Each building is made of different materials, and each is in a different state of disrepair, which makes for a setting defined by a huge variety of textures. “I had talented scenic artists,” says Gallo, who notes that the building facades are made of plastic and Styrofoam. “We concentrated on giving the setting a textural quality,” he continues. “The show is quite drained of color. Everything is painted much the same and it’s all faded out.”

Ruby’s house is the only really intact building on the stage. “The buildings are identical—they’re repeats of each other—but they’re all distressed in different ways," says Gallo. "The buildings on the sides have their tops blown off, even though their inhabitants never moved out—there’s a baby’s crib on the second floor of one building.” In addition, he says, the stage is littered with objects that are symbolic of what the designer calls “the Wilsonian universe—a trumpet, a destroyed piano, and other things that nobody sees—crack vials, bullet casings. There was a much greater degree of rubble at one point, but we got rid of it.” The deck is, he adds, “a constructed rake that’s covered with dirt. It’s a unique mixture of topsoil, builder’s sand, peat moss, pulverized concrete, and wood chips. Dirt is a tricky thing to achieve; it has to look good, but can’t cause a lot of dust and make everybody sick.”

As always with Wilson’s plays, King Hedley underwent a long trek through the resident theatre circuit before arriving on Broadway. Gallo originally designed the set for the Pittsburgh Public Theatre; after that, the production went to the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Huntington Theatre in Boston, the Goodman in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Each of these theatres has its own unique size and configuration, which means the scenery evolved along with the play. “The Pittsburgh Public has a tiny thrust and no backstage space,” the designer recalls. “Then we moved to Seattle, which is a giant proscenium house. At that point, the buildings onstage were more whole, and we started tearing things to pieces, chopping them up. That’s when I added the child’s nursery at stage right and the devastated kitchen at stage left.” After that, he says, the adjustments for each theatre were “a matter of masking.” Of course, he adds, at the Virginia Theatre, which generally hosts musicals, he says, “I have another 20’. I could put the rest of Pittsburgh there.”

The setting is notable for both its scale and the enormity of its detail. In addition, it is greatly transformed, from scene to scene, by the lighting of Don Holder. Like Gallo, Holder says he learned about the play as the production moved around the country. “In my first reading of the script, it felt almost like a classic tragedy, in that everything in the course of a single day, or perhaps a series of mornings. There was no indication of time of day or a progression of time that I could latch onto. In Pittsburgh, I tried to impose on the play a limited, emotionally based time of day structure. It worked okay, but the writing is so dense, the themes are so complex, that it took me a while to really understand the piece.”

The result is a complex light plot, employing more than 500 units, to achieve what Holder calls “a complex progression in terms of time of day, that requires a great deal of specificity in angle and color. If I had to describe the style, I’d call it poetic realism, I didn’t intend to be completely naturalistic. In the second act, for example, after the first scene, we go through a single day, with a long progression into twilight, then evening, then the final confrontation the following morning. As the stakes rise and the intensity of the confrontations increase, the light isolates and zeros in on the characters. As the play darkens, so does the environment in which it is performed.”

This approach is most clearly seen late in the second act, in a scene that moves from twilight to darkness. Ruby has announced her plans to marry Elmore, a long-time suitor and Hedley’s biological father. “It’s the calm before the storm,” says Holder. “I wanted that to be the most romantic and lyrical moment in the play, with Ruby dancing and, when the truth finally comes out, you feel the romance and warmth completely slip away. It all has to happen in the course of one scene. It made sense to start at sunset, with a blazing, beautiful, romantic sky and, as Elmore finally brings himself to admit the truth and clear his conscience of what he’s been holding back all these years, we move into a look that is dark and foreboding. The sunset is primarily done with R316 (Gallo Gold), with some GAM 335 (Coral). Then it turns gray and cold, and the final scene is a gray, gray morning. The color contrast helps move you in the right direction, emotionally.”

Just as Holder isolates characters in their big monologues, lifting them out of the action of the play, he uses sidelight to stylize certain moments as well. For example, after the play’s violent denouement, Stool Pigeon, the latest in a long line of Wilson’s prophesying characters, gets the final world. “That moment needed to be heightened and lifted out of the context of the rest of the piece, so I used low sidelight to stylize it in a subtle way. It works from a naturalistic point of view, because it’s dawn and the sun would logically come in from a low, extreme angle.”

Other challenges involved design maintenance. “You have 20’ tall buildings on a raked floor covered with dirt,” he says. “There’s no way to get a ladder onstage. All the electrics are accessible only by putting a man on a focus track. And it’s a straight play, so you can’t expect a lot of money will be available for work calls. A lot of thought had to go into planning the day-to-day maintenance.”

Holder cites his associate designer, Michelle Haubeck, and production supervisor Brian Lynch as providing him with crucial assistance. Other personnel included assistant set designers Robert John Andrusko and Jerome Martin and production electrician Jon Mark Davidson. The scenery was built by the Huntington Theatre in Boston, with additional scenery by Atlas Scenic Studios, of Bridgeport, CT, and Hudson Scenic Studios in Yonkers. Lighting was supplied by Fourth Phase Lighting. Other designers included Toni-Leslie James (costumes) and Rob Milburn (sound).

“In a way,” concludes Holder, “the piece is like grand opera, with each character having his or her own aria. It needed an operatic approach, in scale, bold strokes of color, bold treatment of the space. I don’t think Marion, David and I talked about it but, as we worked through the piece, city to city, that became clear.” King Hedley II, which won a Tony for Viola Davis in the category of best featured actress in a play, closes on July 1.

Photos: Joan Marcus