TECHNICALLY, ARENA Stage's Fichandler Stage is considered theater in the round. But anyone who's ever been in the space knows that it's really theater in the square. The larger of Arena's two houses places the action at the heart of a seemingly deconstructed box, which is surrounded on all four sides by sloping walls of audience. The layout creates a sense of focus and theatricality that's unique on the D.C. scene. It also creates a distinctive set of challenges for set designers.
Not that they mind: "In the past couple of years, I've done a number of shows in the round and, perhaps to my advantage, I really find that I think that way," says "Book of Days" designer Michael Brown. "I think more sculpturally, so I'm really kind of excited about the challenge of going into a space where you've got to deal with sightlines and you've got to deal with the fact that whatever you put onstage has to be emblematic enough to tell the story but also not obstruct the movement of the piece."
The latter point is especially sticky in the Fichandler. "Days" takes a peek into the darker corners of a superficially idyllic Midwestern town. The action flows freely from location to location, indoors to outdoors, church to factory to mansion. Yet entrances to the stage are limited to four long, narrow tunnels at each corner and elevators under the floor. "It takes so long for an actor to get onstage, let alone bring anything onstage," Brown observes, "so we really set the challenge up that, you know, if everything that we needed was onstage from the beginning, we'd kind of be halfway there."
For his solution -- a bird's-eye view of the town, complete with model bandstand, church, factory and homes -- Brown took his cue from the play's prologue. As the lights come up, the characters address the audience directly, regaling them Chamber of Commerce style with the vital statistics of Dublin, Mo.: population, economy, etc. "You kind of have a sense you're flying into this town -- perhaps from above, is how we approached it," says Brown. "What do you see? And what is the quality of the town? Where is the tranquility? Why is it so picture-perfect? So that's where my impulse of creating a map on the floor came from."
"I was thinking about the piece somewhat cinematically, I guess," says Brown. "It struck me that you could do these wide, panoramic shots and then you could focus down into a particular place." Actors move the carefully detailed model buildings on and off as needed to set the scene. Windows and cornices descend from above to establish interiors.
"The challenge was to make those pieces more than just pretty little pictures," Brown recalls. "That was really fun because I felt like I could justify putting a little house onstage as long as it had two or three other purposes. That was exciting, to say, 'Well, maybe Ruth's house could become the kitchen table, or Walt's house could become the gun cabinet.' "
Brown thinks the inherent theatricality of having characters manipulate their environment is a physical expression of the play's narrative structure. "They're so upfront about the story they're about to tell us," Brown says. "[Lanford Wilson's script] read to me as though they're aware they're doing this -- they're aware they're coming back every night and telling the story, and so I wanted them to be in absolute control of the space."
"I think it's very apt to put this production in the round because the audience is also self-aware -- of who's sitting next to them and who's sitting across from them," Brown adds. "I think that's what's so dynamic about working in the round: The audience becomes part of the performance."