It’s safe to say that the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater has never seen a set quite like that for Samuel D. Hunter’s Greater Clements. Does Dane Laffrey, who did the scenic design, agree? “I can’t speak to the entire history of the Mitzi but I do think we’re using it in a way I haven’t seen before.” Laffrey and I were speaking at a tech rehearsal. The set wasn’t completed, but there was enough there to set us jawing. “We’ve broken the theater apart to an extent,” Laffrey explained, “taking out a few front-row seats and raising the set’s floor a few feet.”
“Place is so specific in Sam’s plays,” Laffrey said. “There’s a wealth of great visual research to pull from.” He went on: “We struggled with how to design this new play for a while. The ‘aha’ moment came when we stopped imagining the Mitzi as a proscenium theater. Of course we knew it wasn’t, but it took us a while to acknowledge that it’s much closer to being a theater in the round. When you’re designing for the round, you absolve yourself of a naturalistic representation of architecture.” The eventual solution involved a long, frontier-town kind of space, with a plank floor.
Greater Clements marks Laffrey’s fifth collaboration with Hunter and director Davis McCallum. Speaking of those plays, Laffrey said: “We dabbled in extreme verisimilitude with The Few and The Harvest. Last year, we did Lewiston/Clarkston, and that was a VFW hall-type of experience. That made us feel confident moving into this new production that we could deliver something a little different. Sam’s plays usually run around 9 scenes and 90 minutes. This time, we get to spend more time with the characters and literally and figuratively go deeper. I’m so excited for both Sam and for the audience.”
Laffrey was born in Michigan and grew up in the Midwest before studying design in Australia. He said: “I still haven’t been to Idaho, where Sam’s plays usually take place, though I feel as if I have because of all my research.” He added: “At the beginning, as I’ve said, there is always a mountain of research. But we eventually have to come up with something that fits the space. With these plays we’ve worked in places with a wide range of needs and budgetary factors. At some point in the future, there could be an incredible retrospective of Sam’s work, taking place on one amazing naturalistic film set.”
Until then, Laffrey is grateful to be working on Greater Clements. “I hope we are giving the play the world premiere it deserves. When you do the first production you always embed a certain DNA into future versions. It will be interesting to see if our aesthetic holds or if there will be attempts at a stricter naturalism.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com