The first page of the script of Ngozi Anwanyu’s Good Grief (onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through March 26, 2017) specifies the time (1992–2005) and place (Bucks County, Pennsylvania) where the play’s action occurs.
But what caught scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s attention was something much more abstract: “it is always night.” She explained that this was her first “aha” moment with the play, which captured her imagination from the very first read-through. “Dreams and memories take place in sort of softened, darkened parts of your brain,” she said. “That’s where the surround came—the blue floor and all the abstracted things onstage. I didn’t want to call out anything that pinned the set down too much in the big world of the play.”
That meant, in part, focusing on the small. “One of Patricia [McGregor], the director’s, first questions to me was, ‘Why do you think so many scenes take place in bed?’” said Schwartz. “We teased out that that’s where we share our most intimate thoughts with somebody. It’s a safe space.” The beds the characters spend the most time in and around belong to Nkechi (the protagonist, played by Anyanwu) and her best friend, MJ (played by Wade Allain-Marcus). Schwartz decided to put them in houses illuminated by LED lights. Those houses are the set’s major focal points. “The houses themselves came from a place to envelop the bedroom,” said Schwartz. “I didn’t really see the bedrooms floating in space. I always saw them in the realm of the domestic.” Hence the houses themselves, which have traditional pitched roofs—a “domestic archetype,” explained Schwartz, as well as a reference to the fact that the play takes place in the Pennsylvania suburbs. The LED lights were inspired by installation art. Inside the houses, the design becomes less abstract and more detailed. “The houses contain really specific props,” said Schwartz—like the bedding, which changes as the characters age. The cumulative effect: “there’s this big abstract world, night and stars and memory”—outside the bedrooms/houses—and inside is "this really tactile world where you can reveal your heart.”
Another element that makes the houses and the set so visually interesting is movement. “Nkechi the character is moving through the world and moving through time, and I felt like she was sort of on a voyage,” said Schwartz. “We didn’t want to place the houses in one place, and we didn’t want to reveal the bedrooms in the beginning.” Some of the elements of the set move on mechanized tracks. But it took some creativity and ingenuity on the part of Douglas Associate Technical Director Chad Smith and Master Electrician Aaron Staubach to figure out how the houses would move without being on a fixed track. “They saw the problem of spinning, moving houses that could light up without being wired to anything,” said Schwartz. “So they created real magic on how the houses move. They solved it so elegantly that it feels natural to the play.” The houses are moved by different actors. “They were always incorporated textually, watching over her either as gods or friends and family,” said Schwartz. “Moving the houses made them the people who guided us to the next scene.”
Collaboration was key to the success of the set design, said Schwartz, and indeed the design of the play as a whole. “The entire design team felt like it was a really special project. Everybody brought their best work,” she said. She worked “very closely” with lighting designer Pablo Santiago in particular. “It truly felt like we were partners,” she said. “I designed the houses to light up, I put the Edison bulbs in the sky, and it was Pablo who took them and ran with them and made the magic that he did. He did such beautiful work.”
Lighting is key to play’s dramatic conclusion, which includes the Orion constellation appearing in the sky thanks to a “glimmer drop” inspired by the work of Ghanian artist El Anatsui. That part of the design is what Schwartz calls “the world of the gods.” The play isn’t just set in suburban Pennsylvania. “There’s another layer of worlds here, of gods and magic and the sort of mystery of Nkechi going back in time,” said Schwartz. “And we wanted to articulate that as well…so there was hopefully a feeling of magic as well as the concreteness of the story.”