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Getting “High” on Bare White Walls

David Gallo and the Quiet Broadway Set

Sometimes, a Broadway set demands your attention. A musical extravaganza wouldn’t feel the same, for instance, without a trap door and a spinning castle and maybe a pontoon boat made of sequins that floats by in the second act.

Some Broadway sets, however, are designed to speak in whispers. Take David Gallo’s work on High, Matthew Lombardo’s drama about an ex-alcoholic nun (Kathleen Turner) whose demons emerge when she counsels a teenage junkie (Evan Jonigkeit.) His set is made from white walls and white furniture, and it’s automated so that pieces slide and pivot to suggest new rooms. Watching them move is like watching the world fall gently into place.

That’s a marked contrast to the volatile emotion of the script, which pushes characters to dark places as they grasp for redemption.

Gallo’s subtle design focuses our attention on the plot. “I wanted there to be texture and a form that was realistic, but I think by painting everything with a unity of color, it abstracts things just enough,” he says. “You don’t get too bogged down in the particulars. The set gives you a sense of place, but it doesn’t try too hard to tell the story.”

But even though it’s not overwhelming the plot, the set deepens our understanding of it. Turner’s character, Sister Jamison, has several moments where she steps out of the play to address us directly, describing her own troubled past and her thoughts on God. In those moments, the white walls disappear, leaving Sister Jamison alone on stage, standing before of a massive wall of stars.

“We were trying to give [the production] a sense of openness, while also giving it a sense of confinement and claustrophobia,” Gallo says. “I guess that sounds contradictory, but the walls define the smallness of a room, yet there’s a greater sense of open space. [The characters] can stay confined in some of the more realistic and heavy scenes and then sort of drift off in a more abstract way.”

But Gallo was rarely “interpreting” his design as he created it. Often, he was just responding to the practical needs of the play. When a table rolls on stage, for instance, it might seem symbolic, but Gallo simply wanted to avoid the awkwardness of having an actor schlep it on. “Everything that we put on stage is very carefully chosen,” he says, “but I don’t find any greater meaning, sometimes, other than a mood or a necessity or an emotional response.”

But a subtle set suggests meaning all the same, inviting audiences to lean forward and decipher what it’s saying.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

Photo courtesy of David Gallo Design

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