The set of Broadway’s The Ferryman is deceptively straightforward: stone walls, a massive wrought iron stove, dishes drying by the sink. That’s what scenic designer Rob Howell (who earned Tony nods for his Ferryman costume and scenic designs) wants you to see, but it’s in what his unassuming cottage makes you feel that takes his design—and consequently the story—to the next level.
Set in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, Jez Butterworth’s drama tells the story of three generations of the Carney clan as they celebrate the annual harvest amidst tensions abroad, the local terror of the IRA, and a silent unrest brewing at home.
Howell wanted to convey that tension in the foundation of his set. So unlike most theatrical sets, The Ferryman’s has a ceiling “to keep the pressure in the room,” he says, and it’s pitched at an angle because “it makes the space slightly uneasy.”
Curtains shifting in the doorways add to “a certain spookiness” but also suggest a brewing of secrets in the air. “There’s a line at some point—‘Let’s see how far the wind blows’—and you feel like stories are drifting in and out, that a story can travel,” he says. “Curtains help hint at that in a way that an enclosed door doesn’t.”
Through physical design, Howell creates the emotional space of the play, one humming with disquiet but also bursting with life.
“What Jez has written about is layers and layers of time,” says Howell. “In terms of scenery, each one of those stones is hand-carved and is evidence of human endeavor. There’s not a moment when [the audience has] that thought process, but it’s there, and it wouldn’t be there if those had been wooden walls—it doesn’t have the same history in humanity.”
That history emanating from the architecture extends to its furnishings of mismatched chairs, a hodgepodge of pots and pans, and the layers of Carney memories embedded in the set. With artwork by the show’s actual cast of kids, faded half-stickers stuck to the staircase, black-and-white photos taped and crinkling in the windowsill, the kitchen oozes Carney ancestry.
“Jez has put [only] an 80-year-old woman onstage and a baby at the top of one of the acts,” Howell notes. “He’s showing an entire ladder of history. The [set] dressing is hinting at the ladder of time that’s there in the writing.”
Likewise, Howell’s mastery lies in the subtlety of his storytelling. “The play’s flying on such a very high level—which is also running very, very deep—it would be irresponsible not to ensure that the audience could just disappear and not be troubled by a show-off.” As in The Ferryman itself, the simplicity of Howell’s design disguises hidden depths.