Joel Sass stopped in midsentence — a long pause.
"Sorry," he said upon resurfacing. "I just want to make sure those lines are straight."
The director/designer of the Jungle Theater's production of "Annapurna" was watching a 10-person crew staple, nail, paste and paint a cutaway life-size house trailer that fills the stage. He particularly had an eye on the sheets of corrugated tin that sheathe the trailer's ovoid contours. The lines had to be right, or the entire thing would look like it's sagging.
In reality, the whole thing sags — with age, neglect and the remorseless body blows of nature. The trailer in "Annapurna" is a domicile for Ulysses, a dissipated poet, and also a reflection of the character's spirit.
"Look at it from here," Sass said, inviting a visitor to stand back in the theater and take in the whole vista. "It's the hermit's cave, where he is doing penance. He even calls it purgatory in the script."
Sass designed this vessel — 21 feet long, 9-plus feet tall and 11 feet deep — as the crucible in which Ulysses and his long-estranged former wife, Emma, spend moments contemplating how it got to be like this.
It's a show that's all about claustrophobia, Sass said. Two people who feel 25 years of absence pushing down on them.
"We put them into a rusty tin can, parked off the grid and let the sun heat them up," he said. "It's a literal and psychic sauna where people sweat out their love and pain."
Trashy, yet functional
Sass said he was going for a 1970s look with the trailer, not old enough to be vintage like the romantic Airstreams, but sufficiently dated to look hideously out of place, like an AMC Pacer.
When complete, the rig will have running water, electricity, a cook stove and a tarp covering a hole in the roof. It sits on two flat tires, cinder blocks and rusted rims. The most expensive piece on the set is a working screen door that needed to be bought new and then distressed.
It's a challenge for lighting design because the top shrouds overhead instruments. But, as Sass points out, the Jungle is intimate enough for a floor lamp to provide useful illumination.
"Annapurna" is a two-person play written by Sharr White, whose "The Other Place" was seen last April at Park Square's Boss stage. It takes its name from the Hindu deity of nourishment. (It is also the name of a massif in Nepal.)
In the Jungle production, Angela Timberman plays Emma, who tracks down Ulysses (Terry Hempleman) in his squalid paradise. She is on a mission regarding their twenty-something son. Once she gets past the shock of Ulysses' state of affairs, she sets about to rehabilitate some of the damage done by his life, their collective memories and alcohol.
A theatrical trademark
Jungle audiences have come to expect great things from set designs — much more so than other theaters the same size. It's part of an aesthetic that came from founding artistic director Bain Boehlke. The attention to detail is meticulous, the carpentry excellent and the sense of space perfectly scaled.
Sass brought his own tradition, having worked with several noted designers such as Dominique Serrand and John Clark Donahue.
For years, Sass created magic with budgets that amounted to not much more than two dimes and a nickel with his own Mary Worth Theatre Company. He learned how to do a lot with very little.
"I watched one great designer walk around a stage that was completely set and take out his keys and nick the furniture," Sass recalled, not naming names.
That same designer scrubbed varnish with steel wool and took a sponge soaked in grime and rubbed it around light switches on the wall.
It isn't enough that the design reflects architectural specifics, Sass said. The set should also tell us "how long someone has lived in this place."
Some of his best work at the Jungle includes the cinematic mystery of Conor McPherson's "Shining City," which he described as naturalism with a poetic flair. "Detroit," the brutally compelling drama that Sass directed two years ago, was a "spooky diorama." McPherson's "The Seafarer" and Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party" were great examples of perfectly adorned realism.
But Sass has also found worth in concept sets that are spare. "The Syringa Tree," a one-woman work performed by Sarah Agnew at the Jungle, had only a single swing as a defining set piece. Even then, Sass said, "What kind of swing? What kind of wood and rope?"
As Sass chatted, the air was punctuated with occasional unnerving blasts from a nail gun (like a scene from "The Deer Hunter"). He kept his eye on his set and what it says about the characters in "Annapurna," particularly Ulysses.
"The space that we live in tells a lot about what we think we deserve," he said. "The place reflects you."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299