Stage preview: Two worlds, one set challenges PICT designer

 

Alan Ayckbourn plays with class and relationships in “How the Other Half Loves,” and he has strict instructions for the staging: There shall be overlapping living rooms with a smartly appointed room for the boss and a shabbier room belonging to the employee’s family. He also has said for the play to work, it must be set as a period piece in the autumn of 1969.

With those marching orders, Johnmichael Bohach is designing PICT Classic Theatre’s first play of the season back at its Oakland home, in the Stephen Foster Memorial’s Charity Randall Theater. After two shows in a Downtown blackbox theater, it’s time to get serious about wallpaper swatches, furniture and doors — several doors, as an Ayckbourn comedy demands.

The homes belong to the Fosters, boss Frank and wife Fiona, and the Phillips, underling Bob and Teresa. We also encounter Bob’s associate William and his wife, Mary, who are unwittingly being used to hide an affair that will affect all their lives.

Instead of upstairs downstairs — which PICT did with two theaters for Ayckbourn’s “House and Garden” — two worlds must exist side by side for “How the Other Half Loves.”

“I started by researching the two periods we were trying to portray, on the order of the New York brownstone [for the employer’s old-money home] and the midcentury modern look,” Mr. Bohach said. “One thing I found out is the midcentury modern, everything is set on horizontal lines, so the couches were lower and more spread out, and I kind of took that as a jumping off point. I have the vertical stripes elongating the other home, so it’s a play on kind of vertical vs. horizontal.”

For furniture, he started as he always does, with a dream list, then he adjusts it as “we realize we can’t afford this and we’ll never find that.” He first consults with prop masters at Carnegie Mellon and Point Park universities and theaters around town before he hits Craigslist and local antique and thrift shops.

Director Martin Giles had one dream item in mind for the Phillips’ room: He wanted an orange chair, and he got it.

“The best thing we found is an orange recliner over at the Red, White and Blue [thrift store] near Dormont,” Mr. Bohach said. “It was actually half price that day we were there, so even better, and it is actually that pumpkin orange that is so iconic of the period. We had to grab that up.”

With every wallpaper swatch and furniture find, he texts a photo to the director. The orange chair got an “Oh my God, the nostalgia in that!” He also has to consult with the prop master and sound, lighting and costume designers to make sure that colors don’t clash or the furniture and speakers can live in harmony.

Shopping for the lower-class living room turned out to be on the expensive side, because midcentury modern is popular right now. “The most important thing was to find those iconic pieces that really show the look to juxtapose with kind of the old, stuffy furniture of the upper class,” he said. “That has more Victorian style or Federal style, lots of curves and stuff.”

The final touches come from the props department, where pieces that can’t be found or bought are created.

There is considerable action at a dining-room table, for example, which will be on a raised platform and create a sunken-living-room look that the designer says works for the period.

“We’ve been calling it ‘Frankenstein furniture.’ The table is actually two tables superimposed together, and the chandelier lives in both worlds,” Mr. Bohach said.

The designer who studied architecture and theater at the University of Pittsburgh knew which direction his career was headed back at Hickory High School in Mercer County, where he created his first set design, including a street scene, for “Crazy for You.”

Mr. Bohach will design the rest of PICT’s eclectic season, including “Sharon’s Grave,” which has an Irish cottage setting, and, coming up in October, “The Tempest.”

“I haven’t talked to the director [Matt Torney] yet, but Shakespeare can go any which way — you can set it on the moon,” he said.

Now that would be a challenge for a Craigslist shopper.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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