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In theory, a set should never dominate a production. It should serve the story and give focus to the actors. At first glance, David Zinn's set for August: Osage County at the Old Globe breaks the rule. It looks like a giant game of tic-tac-toe, minus a box or two. A huge, hundred-year-old house, cut down the middle, occupies most of the proscenium. Except for a porch, stage left, there's nothing else to look at.

The set appears to dominate, at first, but as the play unfolds, it works in detail. It bullies visually the way the characters, especially drug-addled Violet, assault each other (Japhy Weideman's lighting adds to the fickle moodiness with blackouts and cross-fades that snap like summer lightning).

I was curious to see how other productions of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winner did the design. Compared to Zinn's, the others look abstract and artistic: one has the house in only the middle third of the stage, a skinny spire, "American Gothic" look; two others suggest various rooms but leave the downstage area open, with three playing spaces but no walls. The difference is breathing space. The other sets suggest claustrophobia but also provide relief. Zinn's, like Violet and sweltering August in Northern Oklahoma, offers no way out.

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Photos by Henry DiRocco.

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