At the critically-beloved Harper Regan, running at the Atlantic Theater Company through November 4th, the audience is greeted by a rather grim set. Three rows of steel walls fill the stage, each taller than the one before, closing down the space so claustrophibically that any audience member hoping for spectacle becomes nervous. It looks like a steel birthday cake, or something from the Global Guts vault. The first scene is tense, still, and crowded entirely in front of the first wall. As it ends, one wonders, "Where the hell do they go from here?"
And then Harper starts knocking down barriers. The front wall goes first, with a thud that makes the audience start. Soon, Mary McCann and her fellow actors are finding barstools hidden in the panels, producing sofas from nowhere, and finally inverting the entire back of the set to reveal a cramped English garden. In a play whose tone is icy, whose dialogue is off-putting, and whose characters hardly interact, Hauck's set is an unfolding wonder—a bit of magic in a show about men and women whose lives hold very little magic at all.
"It was quite a long design process," said Hauck in an interview this week. To bring Simon Stephens' ultra-lean play to life, she and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch had to deal with eleven scenes, nine locations, and stage directions that give no clue how the set is to look. Hauck and Upchurch started with a naturalistic, crowded set, but soon scaled it back until it was "very pared down and a little bit merciless," and "gave Harper nowhere to hide." Keeping Harper exposed helps McCann stay vulnerable, and gives her reason for her character's occasional lashing out.
"I think she loves knocking that stuff over," said Hauck. "It's incredibly exciting to me, when she shoves over walls and they become floors. I don't think anybody's expecting it."
As Hauck sees her, Harper Regan is "a person in free fall, a person searching for what to do next, a person completely alone and completely at a loss," who reacts to news of her father's sudden illness by fleeing her family to spend a few days in her hometown of Stockport. Though she goes to see her father, she arrives just after he dies. Visiting hours are over, and she doesn't even get to see his body. When she returns home, something has changed within her, but it's not clear what—a vagueness reflected in the garden that appears for the final scene, which Hauck called, "the moment of rleease and relief and payoff."
"Those big doors open," she said, "and you finally get a breath of just the tiniest bit of growth."
Though most of his stage directions were vague, Stephens labored over the description of what is on the breakfast table for Harper's last conversation with her husband—orange juice, fruit, a French press full of coffee.
"To me, that scene needs to present hope," Hauck said. "The text of that scene is quite complicated, and it's nowhere near as clear as it appears to be. That juxtaposition came from Simon. What he really was hoping to see in that final scene was something organic. So against all of that steel, you have just the tiniest bit of green. It's a backyard, but it's not a hopeful backyard."Harper Regan is not a hopeful play, but it is occasionally beautiful. And nothing in it is quite so impressive as the ugly steel set that slowly unfolds to reveal a bit of green.