Whether you’re talking a realistic or minimalistic stage design, Rich Montena and John Birchler know one important key to success: very good actors.
“The actors tell the story, and all I’m trying to do is support them with a little bit of atmosphere,” said Montena, who is acting as technical director and stage designer in the Albany Civic Theater production of “Man From Nebraska,” opening Friday night and running over the next two weekends.
“And the only way for me to approach this show was to go minimalistic, especially on our small stage. With 29 scenes and 17 different locations, you have to be nuanced and do your best to create a sense of place for each of those different scenes.”
“Man From Nebraska” is by playwright/actor/screenwriter Tracy Letts, who won a 2008 Pulitzer for his play “August: Osage County,” and a 2013 Tony for his portrayal of George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
‘Man from Nebraska’
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater 215 Second Ave., Albany
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 14
HOW MUCH: $15-$10
MORE INFO: www.albanycivictheater.org, 462-1297
In “Man From Nebraska,” which was also a Pulitzer finalist, Letts has created a character, Ken Carpenter, who goes out looking for all of life’s important answers after waking up one day and realizing he doesn’t believe in God. Who better to take on this character locally, according to Birchler, the director, than Albany’s Patrick White.
“Patrick is very good,” said Birchler, quickly summing up White’s talents. “This character has a wide range of emotions, and Patrick can always do that kind of stuff. He really fits the part.”
White is on stage throughout most of the play, and carries the action through a number of short scenes with different characters. The challenge of creating those scene changes with very little effort was quite a task according to Montena, who has designed sets at Albany Civic for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Laramie Project,” “All My Sons” and “Proof.”
“There are elements on the set that have multiple uses, but there is also a lot of shifting and things being moved around,” said Montena, a Lake George native.
“We use the actors, and it really is choreographed because when we darken the stage we have to make sure they don’t trip on each other. It’s like they’re dancing, and it was a great challenge, but having talented actors really help. When they’re very good, the audience focuses on them, and that allows us to use very few props.”
Also making Montena’s job easier are Resa Tanner as White’s wife, Nancy, Judy Landers as his mother, Cammie, and Kevin McNamara as his minister, Rev. Todd. There are eight actors in all who share the stage with White, including Simone Lavine, Debra Burger, Jennie Pines, Kevin Barhydt and Morton Hess.
“There really isn’t a small role in this play,” said Birchler. “They are all important characters, and they each have their scene with Ken in a series of little vignettes.”
“I became interested in doing this play as soon as I read it, and it’s nothing at all like ‘August: Osage County,’ ” Birchler said. “In this play, most of the emotion is held in, and at times Letts uses silence. There are entire scenes in which nothing is said. The emotion is suggested by the actors.”
Birchler, who has done plenty of work both on and off stage in Schenectady and the Gloversville-Johnstown area, is directing at Albany Civic Theater for the first time.
White got his start in community theater at Albany Civic more than 25 years ago and has become one of the busiest actors in the area.
In the last two years alone he has acted or directed with Curtain Call Theatre, Schenectady Civic Players, Our Own Productions, the Classic Theater Guild, the Arts Center of the Capital Region and the University at Albany.