By Frances Marion Givhan
Beginning October 28 at 7:30 p.m. in the Tennessee Williams Center, the Sewanee Theatre Department offers the opportunity to see a play that combines the brilliance of Russian author Anton Chekhov and American playwright Neil Simon. The Good Doctor, written by Simon and inspired by Chekhov’s short stories, tells the story of The Writer experiencing writer’s block, whose imagination unravels into short scenes on the stage. As he remembers characters he has written and ones he just created, student actors play out the stories.
Chris Bryan, who played Gloucester in last year’s No Lear Shakespeare, returns to play The Writer, and Professor Pete Smith gives his keen eye and experience with comedy as the show’s director. Beyond that, students design, act, and produce the show with the guidance of the theatre’s professors.
Smith chose The Good Doctor because the number of stories created several possibilities for casting actors. The cast consists of Bryan and 17 students, most of whom play only one role. The amount of roles provided “flexibility in casting,” Smith says. However, he also recognizes that “the episodic structure is a challenge to maintain unity in design and staging.” With various stories and settings, scenic and lighting designer Chynna Bradford (C’17) faced the challenge of creating unity on stage. In addition to the set, the production requires the actors to hone their comedic techniques, which Smith describes as a “challenge for developing actors. It’s all in the timing.”
People often acknowledge the effort the Theatre Department dedicates to the shows at the Tennessee Williams Center, but few understand the full extent of the work that goes into a production. Bradford spends most of her evenings in the TWC’s design lab, designing the set and drawing up plans for the lighting. As scenic designer, Chynna orchestrates how the audience visually engages with the space. “I spent a lot of time researching Russia in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s,” says Bradford. “I paid special attention to architectural motifs and styles.” Every aspect of the set pays homage to that research, from a parquet floor to an elaborate roof that hangs over the Writer’s cabin. “One of the biggest challenges I encountered was that I had a stationary set and the show takes place in so many different places,” she notes. Simon’s work, while relatable, usually contains an element of surrealism. “I had to show what [the Writer’s cabin] was without being completely true to what you see in real life, but just enough to evoke the location.”
While Technical Director John Marshall and Tennessee Williams Theatre Fellow Huntre Woolwine (C’16) have created the physical world of the play with work-study students and volunteers in the scene studio, the costume department has drafted, built, and coordinated the costumes, hair, and makeup for The Good Doctor. Downstairs in the costume studio, books filled with pictures of waistcoats, bustles, and hair cover tables alongside fabric and drafting paper. Advanced costume technicians Liz Estes (C’18) and Danielle Silfies (C’19) are designing the costumes and hair for the show, respectively, and each has extensively studied their craft to create period-accurate clothing and hairstyles.
“I researched why people did their hair this way, how people maintained their hair, and who set the style for the age,” says Silfies. According to her, some hairstyles existed out of necessity due to the frizziness caused by marcel irons. They also used eggs to wash their hair, an aspect of the period that Silfies has joked to do to the actors. “I also discovered the people who set the styles for the time,” she says. “They were a group of six sisters who had about 37 feet of hair between them.” Silfies, who also designed hair and makeup for last year’s musical review In A Nutshell, enjoys how elaborate each hairstyle is. “It’s really like a hair puzzle, looking at a picture and figuring out how I can replicate it,” she says. Silfies is currently building the costume for The Mistress, played by Tori Hinshaw (C’19).
Estes took inspiration for the period from portraits by Russian artists. “These portraits felt way more real than fashion plates ever could,” she says. She focused on the 1880’s as the decade for the show because Chekhov wrote his short stories during this time as he pulled himself through medical school. “I love the silhouettes of women’s clothing during this time. Everything has bustles and corsets and fancy draped skirts,” she says. Estes feels particularly excited to see everything fully realized on stage. “I think it’s really cool to see all the bits and pieces we’ve worked on come together to make a complete whole for the performance.”
The Good Doctor opens on Friday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m., with shows on Saturday, October 29 and Thursday through Saturday, November 3-5 at 7:30 p.m. There will be at Sunday matinee on October 30 at 2 p.m. From the work in the costume and scene shop to the performances of the actors, the show promises to delight and entertain. Smith’s main hope for the production is “no casualties.”