Dressing the Part
Designer behind Huntington’s The Luck of the Irish
Mariann Verheyen vividly recalls designing a floor-length cape covered with peacock feathers for a production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Watching a dress rehearsal, she realized the cape was too cumbersome for the actor to move around the stage safely. Over the actor’s objections and despite all the hours she had put into designing the elaborate garment, she cut it. It wasn’t Verheyen’s first 11th-hour change of heart. Over the course of a 35-year career as a costume designer, she has axed any number of wigs, removed countless jewelry, reworked entire costumes.
“The moment you have a sacred cow, get out your sword,” says Verheyen, a College of Fine Arts associate professor in the School of Theatre. “I’ve gone to fittings and looked in the mirror and thought, oops. I can always have another good idea. Once you realize that, you can start having fun.”
Verheyen brings her considerable skill and eye for detail to the Huntington Theatre Company’s latest production, The Luck of the Irish, a new play by Kirsten Greenidge, a Huntington playwriting fellow. The play, which runs through April 29 at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion, marks the 22nd time Verheyen has designed costumes for a Huntington production. She began working for the company during its first season, in 1982. In addition, she’s designed for productions all over the country, including New York’s Public Theater, Atlanta Shakespeare Company, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Her costume design repertoire includes numerous commercials, as well as acts at SeaWorld, Disney Cruise Lines, and Animal Kingdom.
Whatever the job, she says, costume design always comes down to the same thing. “Ultimately it’s about serving the storytelling,” she says. “I’m just here as a designer to help tell the story. A really good performer doesn’t even need me. I’m extra.”
For The Luck of the Irish, Verheyen made adjustments and refinements throughout the rehearsal period. At one point she realized some of the costumes needed richer colors to make the actors stand out more from the dramatic but monochromatic set. Others needed to be altered to make a particular actor look better. So she swapped a beige cardigan for a coral one, dyed a blouse a more vibrant blue, painted a hat a deeper shade of black.
The Luck of the Irish is the story of an affluent black couple who asks a working-class white couple to “ghost-buy” a house for them in a predominantly white Boston neighborhood in the 1950s. Years later, the white family asks for the house back. Verheyen had to consider how the costumes could communicate the play’s different time settings (the story cuts between the 1950s and the 1980s).
“The play goes back and forth fluidly,” she notes during a break in a dress rehearsal, a number of amber pendants clattering around her neck. “I looked for a design vocabulary that would allow that fluidity with ease, that allowed each character to show the passage of time, but in a way that didn’t call attention to itself.”
To that end, she didn’t want the actors constantly changing clothes, feeling that would be too jolting an indication of time and would pose a hassle for the actors. Still, how to convey the passage of days or years? Verheyen started thinking about closets, specifically what kind of clothes each character would have had in theirs. She imagined that Lucy Taylor, the well-to-do black woman living in the 1950s, would have more fashion-forward, casual pieces from the period, such as pedal pushers. For white working-class Patty Ann Donovan she conceived a wardrobe that was more traditional, like full skirts with crinolines.
Then Verheyen and Mary Lauve, the Huntington’s costume design assistant, went about finding the costumes. Lauve shopped for current and period pieces, far more than they actually needed. The actors tried on piles of clothes, mixing and matching them at Verheyen’s direction. After two rounds of shopping and fittings, she winnowed each actor’s wardrobe down to a half dozen or so pieces, enough to fill a small suitcase. In the play, actors change costumes simply by throwing on a matching cardigan, tying on an apron, or switching blouses.
“Mariann has managed to create real clothes for the characters and beautiful images at the same time, no easy task and a great gift to the world of the play,” says director Melia Bensussen.
Verheyen grew up in a big family in a town north of Milwaukee. When an older sister signed up for a summer class in costume design and then found she didn’t have time for the homework, Verheyen took her place. She was hooked from the first class. After getting a BA in English with a minor in theater design from St. Norbert College in De Pere, she went on to earn an MFA in costume design at the University of Wisconsin. She moved to New York City in 1978 with $300. She landed a job making ornate blankets for the animals in the Ringling Brothers Circus by day and designing costumes for a dance show at night. It was, she recalls, an inauspicious start. Work began to come her way, though, and hasn’t stopped.
When Verheyen joined BU in 1991, she balanced two jobs, teaching and design work. She kept an apartment in New York City until 2007. Over the years, teaching has taken on a bigger role in her life. Today, she heads CFA’s costume design program. But with her work on The Luck of the Irish finished, she’s already committed to three other shows. And despite her decades of experience, Verheyen admits to one persistent handicap.
“I don’t sew well,” she says. “It’s a character flaw. I just don’t have the patience.”