Who’s Designing for 'Virginia Woolf?'

in Inside Theatre

The set has a realistic, lived-in look, with a de-saturated palette that keeps the focus on the four central characters. Photos by Michael BrosilowA rustic, seemingly peaceful New England home erupts into chaos overnight when a bickering middle aged couple (Martha and George) receive a late-night visit from a younger couple (Honey and Nick) after they all attend a university faculty schmoozefest. What begins as mildly sarcastic banter with an undercurrent of middle aged marital anxiety and professional jealousy devolves into a twisted game of emotional cat and mouse as the older couple teases, coaxes, derides, flirts with and tries to dominate the younger couple. Things progressively deteriorate in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? until the generational clash, fueled by ideological differences, sexual tension and dark secrets, reaches its morbid denouement.

50-Year Milestone

Todd RosenthalThe current Broadway production coincides with the 50th anniversary of the play (down to the opening night) and transferred from Chicago after a successful run at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Tony Award-winning scenic designer Todd Rosenthal said that the tone of the piece has changed since its transition. “I think that there are more extremes in their behavior and more passion,” observed Rosenthal. He noted that star Tracy Letts (as George) “has gotten a lot more violent, which makes him really kind of frightening.”

A scenic shift has also occurred with the show. “I think the biggest challenge was getting it to New York and modifying it so that it fit into a proscenium,” Rosenthal told PLSN. “We designed it for a thrust space — the Steppenwolf space where it came from was much different. The producers really didn’t want to spend any money to alter the set to fit into a proscenium, so we really had to scramble to make our case for changing things. We had to extend walls. I actually prefer it in a frame, but it took a lot to get them to cough up the money to change the set to fit in a new space.”

Rosenthal explained that this incarnation of the classic Edward Albee drama was designed as a moderately budgeted regional theater production as opposed to a 50th anniversary Broadway celebration. “I really wanted the physical production to recede into the background, because it’s very much about these four incredibly dynamic performers,” he stated. “This was Edward’s most realistic play, and as far as the evolution of the story and how it all comes out at the end, I didn’t want to telegraph any of that. I didn’t want the space to feel odd and strange. There’s enough allegory in the play itself that we really didn’t need to strengthen that, so the idea was to go with absolute authenticity in every way, that this was a space that had seen better days.”

Whereas the recent period revival, The Heiress, had its set designed from a dramatic angle, the Virginia Woolf set is viewed head-on. Rosenthal wanted it to be like a portrait. “It was fortuitous that the paneling and the austerity of the Booth Theatre fit in with the set itself.”

Rosenthal, who lives in Chicago, professed a love for Craftsman-style Victorian spaces, hence the open feeling of a big house occupied by Martha and George. He wanted them to share a cold, large space, which certainly reflects their emotionally distant relationship. Rosenthal worked with lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes on the Broadway show in creating the sense of the unseen upstairs space at stage left.

“Whenever you put in a ceiling, there are challenges, but we really felt the sense of having an upstairs was really important,” said Rosenthal. “We talked extensively about which practicals went where and how we could warm the space up. In terms of the wall coloring, when we originally did the play in Chicago, the walls were too warm, so we de-saturated the walls substantially when we moved to New York. I wanted the space to look like it was dying, with the colors bleeding out of it.

“Also, if you make the space too low — and Steppenwolf has a very high proscenium — it doesn’t feel like it fits in there and there’s a lot of empty space,” added Rosenthal. “This again was not designed for a Broadway theater, it was designed for Steppenwolf, and I just didn’t want there to be that much masking and empty space.

Piles of books adorn the reclusive “man cave” for Tracy Letts, who plays George. Photos by Michael BrosilowBooks, and More Books

“When we talked early on, we wanted the space to feel almost like it was a Hitchcock movie, with a sense of mystery and where does the staircase go,” recalled Rosenthal. “We talked about George having his own man cave space [piled with books] that he could retreat into, so that’s why that space under the staircase came about. We used all authentic materials, so the set is completely built out of oak. There’s real furniture up there, real cabinetry. That’s where the expense came, because we used all real materials. The cabinetry is real, so afterwards somebody could take that and put it in their house.”

If one is sitting close to the set or walks up to it during intermission, one can see how many of the books are easily visible. Numerous titles are about World War II, which fit the character of George. There are also books in the fireplace, which is an unusual touch.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? production photo by Michael Brosilow“The idea was that he was running out of space, and also that, to George, knowledge is more important than warmth,” clarified Rosenthal. “When I was doing research for a production of Proof in Chicago, I went to the home of a history professor at the University of Chicago. I remember that he had books in his fireplace, and I thought that was interesting. It’s so much about George marking his territory and filling in every crevice. Personally, my books run completely amok because I have no more spaces on the shelves.”

Rosenthal joked that he had to act as the “book police” and enlisted the aid of the actors in identifying books that did not fit the themes or time period of the play. When they first loaded in from Chicago, author names like Stephen King and Danielle Steele were visible, which did not exactly work for a show set in the 1960s. While he did not know how much the book budget was, he advised that the best way to get the best books for a Broadway production is “to move from a regional theater because they have their stock of stuff and people on staff, and you can really spend time with the set and really flesh out the details. Most of these books came from Steppenwolf.”

Chicago, NYC and Vermont

Another important background detail was what lies outside of the front door. Even though it is only opened three or four times during the nearly three-hour play, the audience can see “outside,” and there is also a partial view through a large living room window. “In Chicago, we just had a bare cyclorama up there, but now we actually have an image of Middlebury College in Vermont. I think Broadway audiences have a certain expectation for a level of detail, so it’s nice to be able to flesh things out completely.”

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? production photo by Michael BrosilowConversely, in Chicago, there was a hallway leading to the invisible kitchen off stage right, but there was not enough room in the Booth Theatre “to really make that so you could actually see other elements of the house so it felt like an ant farm.” They made do with what space they had.

Letts and Rosenthal worked together on Broadway previously on August: Osage County, which was written by Letts. (The production netted Rosenthal a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play in 2008.) Rosenthal has also worked on 25 to 30 productions at Steppenwolf in Chicago. “I know those actors really well, and I know Tracy more as an actor than as a playwright,” noted Rosenthal. “I respect their choices, and for Virginia Woolf they actually had a lot of opinions about set dressing and what was appropriate and what wasn’t. I would come in some days and there would be props in the front row that they threw off the stage. I respect them and work with them a lot and consider them colleagues. They’re smart actors, and I think they have really, really good instincts about that stuff. Nobody knows the character better than the performer, so you’d be crazy not to listen to them. But that comes later on. The actors aren’t involved in the early stages of the design.”

The set and lighting match the 50-year-old drama's intellectual sharpness and emotional chill. Photo by Michael BrosilowRosenthal is pleased with the way that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turned out, and, on top of everything else, he learned a nice recipe for dust. “You put ground pumice stone and mix it with a medium and spray it, and it looks really fantastic,” he declared. “Evidently, it’s a movie trick. Some of the guys who did some of the touch up work on this production are movie artists, so they were dealing with minutia, which I find to be fun. I love working on meticulous details.”