"My own childhood home was the same one in which my mother grew up." So speaks a character in an early Eudora Welty story, trying to define what constitutes "old money." A similar comfort attitude toward place was on the mind of Jeff Cowie, Dividing the Estate's set designer, as we chatted quietly in the rear of the Booth Theatre this week, as the production began its week of technical rehearsals.
"There is a difference between Northern old money and Southern old money," Cowie said, "just as there is a difference between what Michael and I" -- he was referring to the play's director, Michael Wilson -- "refer to as Northern cheapness and Southern cheapness. In both cases, the behavior may seem the same, but the Southern version is generally done with a little more grace. Just as the comfortable, historical Southern home will have a few more grace notes than the Northern version." Indicating the fern box on his stage set, Cowie noted, "You probably wouldn't have that in a Northern WASP home. That's the difference."
Cowie, who grew up in New England but imbibed Southern ways while living in Houston for several years, says that many aspects of his design might be the same for a WASP-y home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives now, as they are for the play's southeast-Texas family. "There are the slightly tattered rugs, the sofas that are presentable but worn, a general sense of faded elegance."
Cowie said that for Dividing's transfer from off-Broadway's Primary Stages, where it ran last year, to the Booth, the set grew quite a bit. "It's now the house dominating the characters more than the characters dominating the house." This effect is heightened by the one large production element added for Broadway -- and which I'm not about to give away. "In terms of the set," Cowie observed, "I wanted there to be something new for even the people who saw it at Primary. And now there is."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com