Designer Derek McLane Branches Out

 Zosia Mamet and Cheshire's Jonny Orsini

Zosia Mamet and Cheshire's Jonny Orsini

The script calls for an actor to climb a tree and join another character on a large branch as they peer into a friend's bedroom. They remain up there for much of the play. 

That was the assignment Derek McLane faced when he began designing the set for The Whirligigthe new play by Hamish Linklater that's being presented by the New Group through June 11. 

That's a serious arboreal challenge for the Tony Award-winning designer, and it's an especially tricky task because The Whirligig has specific demands that make it impossible to just place a maple in the center of stage. 

"The play is very fluid, with overlapping scenes and multiple locations, and it goes back and forth in time," McLane says. Therefore, though the tree is a major element, it can't dominate the playing space. 

So McLane went for a minimalist look that also reflects the "gentleness, lightness, and lyrical nature" of the show, which is set in the Massachusetts Berkshires, where Linklater was raised. 

 Grace Van Patten and Jonny Orsini

Grace Van Patten and Jonny Orsini

"The set is really an empty blue box -- not a solid blue but more of a painterly blue -- with a lot of tree branches in it," McLane says. "You see the overhanging branches even when you're [in an interior scene]. There's a hint of fall in the leaves, but it's hard to tell because most of the scenes happen at night." 

The plot follows Kristina (Dolly Wells) and her ex-husband Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) as they care for their estranged, ailing daughter Julie (Grace Van Patten). Characters from Julie's complicated past include her childhood friend Trish (Zosia Mamet) and her former drug dealer. As McLane notes, "Practically every character is complicit in some way for Julie's illness, but there's a beautiful forgiveness that happens."

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