When considering whether to produce Neil Simon’s autobiographical comedy-drama “Brighton Beach Memoirs” this season, AthensWest Theatre Company was forced to take into account the sheer size of the set it would have to build.
Set in 1937 in a modest house in the working-class, immigrant-heavy New York City neighborhood of Brighton Beach, the script calls for several clearly delineated playing areas, including a living room, a kitchen and a stairwell leading up to two bedrooms and a bathroom.
“We knew it would require a set that would be really ambitious for us,” AthensWest producing artistic director Bo List says. “We said all right, it’s time to put on our big-boy pants.”
The resulting big-boy set, created by the Nashville-based scenic designer Megan Baptiste-Field, is by far the largest of AthensWest’s five seasons to date, and one of the largest ever for a local theater company. It’s the latest sign of growth for the company, whose annual budget has tripled to about $150,000 over its lifetime and which produces shows with Actors’ Equity performers, often from out of town, along with local and non-union actors.
The main stage area for “Brighton Beach” features a painted wood floor about 20 by 16 feet, with audience members seated on three sides of the action at the Downtown Arts Center’s black-box theater. Then there’s a second level, with the bedrooms and bathroom, nearly 7 feet above the main floor. The highest part of the back wall is about 16 feet.
For all its size and apparent specificity, however, the set for “Brighton Beach Memoirs” — structured as a memory play in which Simon’s alter ego, a 14-year-old boy named Eugene, looks back with fondness (and occasional pangs of something darker) on his coming of age in a Depression-era Jewish family — will be far from realistic.
It will lack doors and windows, for example; those will be indicated by Tom Willis’s lyrical, shifting, often color-saturated lighting design, taking full advantage of the Downtown Arts Center’s recently acquired, cutting-edge LED lighting system. “What’s amazing to me,” Willis said, “is that I can change the total vibe of the set with the touch of a button.”
The set will also have only the most minimal furniture and set decorations, a stripped-down approach rooted in director Tosha Fowler’s vision of the play as a “memoir,” in which the setting is being conjured in memory by Eugene (played with boisterous teenage energy by Perry Mains) through the rose-colored glasses and selective soft focus of an older man looking back on the end of his childhood.
“Megan and I said, if we were Eugene, what would we remember?” recalls Fowler, the new director of Transylvania University’s theater program. “It’s Eugene’s memoir, and he tells us exactly what’s important to him. So it was easy for us to say, here’s what needs to be onstage, and everything else is not important.”
That means that while a few key pieces of furniture will be present onstage — a sofa, a Singer sewing machine, a small table with a 1930s-era wireless radio — there will be almost none of the grace-note tschotskes and other set dressings that add texture and cosiness in more realistic productions. The set exists, in short, in some middle ground between pure abstraction and lush naturalism.
“Tosha and I both enjoy playing in that in-between world,” Baptiste-Field says. “As a designer, I’ve done everything from blank stages to every-detail realistic sets. In this case, it was about finding that fine line between serving what the script and the actors need, but also capturing the emotional quality of the play. So the set provides the bare minimum for the storytelling, for people to sit on and touch. Everything else we took away.”
Brighton Beach Memoirs by AthensWest Theatre Company
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St., Lexington
When: Oct. 4-20 (Thursday-Sunday)
Info: (859) 425-2550 or athenswest.net