When it was time to design the set for Pallas Theatre Collective’s production of “The Yellow Wallpaper” at the Anacostia Arts Center, the dialogue gave the artistic team pretty clear clues as to how it should look. It had to be “monstrous,” with the ability to “induce vomiting,” and a “fetid eyesore” that reveals a haunting woman’s face.
In short, the set had to be ugly enough to hasten the mental deterioration of a woman already in a precarious state. That’s the premise of the 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on which the new musical by Sarah Taylor Ellis and Lane Williamson is based.
“This is about the yellow wallpaper on the wall, a pattern that repeats and repeats, and starts to move and meld in the character’s head until that obsession starts to overtake her brain,” says Tracey Elaine Chessum, the production’s co-director. “Not only do we have to get the pattern, we have to see the woman in the wall, we have to see her face, where she’s scratching to get out.”
Chessum enlisted her brother-in-law, graphic designer Marc McLain, to create wallpaper so nauseating that it could drive a woman insane. And where his work ended, technology took over. Through the magic of projections, the wallpaper will actually undulate and move, as a reflection of the woman’s psychotic breakdown. But the true brilliance of the musical, Chessum says, is how the score, composed by Ellis, reinforces the wallpaper patterns.
“What Sarah does with the music is not just accompany the words of her obsession,” says Chessum, who calls Ellis “the next Sondheim.”
“What we have is repeated patterns that go backwards and forwards. She allows the music to create that obsession behind the wallpaper.”
As the woman continues to spiral, her musical theme becomes more fractured, as do the themes of her husband and caretaker. “The Yellow Wallpaper” might seem unusual fodder for a musical — it’s a sort of feminist horror story — but Ellis’s compositions also make the story more palatable.
“It is a dark and kind of intense musical, but the music is placed in a way that makes it more safe,” says Ty Hallmark, artistic director, co-director and the actress playing the main role.
Hallmark and Chessum pored over medical literature, which enabled them to present an authentic portrayal.
“As an actor it’s one of those challenges you definitely relish,” Hallmark says. “You can feel her desperation. . . . It’s about this headspace that she gets locked into. That’s an easy thing for me to understand. I think a lot of people can admit that they are obsessive about some things.”
And for contemporary audiences, the story also is a reminder that mental illness doesn’t affect just one person.
“This is a story about all of the people around one individual who is struggling,” Chessum says. “You watch her entire world around her try to help.”
Tuesday through July 6 at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd. SE. 202-631-6291. www.pallastheatre.org. $20.