In the Eye of the Hurricane: Setting Key Largo

(Key Largo photo by Jeff Lorch)

Scenic designer John Lee Beatty received a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his sets in Geffen Playhouse’s production of Key Largo, which Entertainment Weekly dubbed a “rip-roaring noir ride.” Beatty worked alongside a talented creative team comprising projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, sound designer Alex Hawthorn, costume designer Linda Cho, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski—who also won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his work on the play—all of whom collaborated on how best to portray one of the play’s most powerful characters: the hurricane.

Key Largo demanded so many special effects, both physical and digital, that the Beatty worked with director Doug Hughes to break down the show, effect by effect. “I did a horrible junk model so we could figure out what and where things happened,” explains the set designer. As the show developed, Beatty says, “the basic design stayed the same except for adaptations to do all this difficult work inside the limitations of the Geffen stage. That continued right up until first preview!”

John Lee Beatty's set drawing for Key Largo

The play follows Frank McCloud, a disillusioned WWII veteran, to a fishing resort on the Florida island, Key Largo, where he intends to pay his respects to the widow of a fallen comrade, but instead, gets locked in a battle with mobsters who have taken over the hotel. The moody, action-packed, rain-filled production called for a “noir” feel, reminiscent of the 1948 film. Beatty researched old resorts in Florida as well as used the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego for inspiration. (It also doubled for a Florida resort in the movie Some Like It Hot.) “I was sent the movie designs, and I like the movie, but this needed to be more theatrical, less symmetrical, and actually a bit lusher,” notes Beatty. “The set designer and lighting designer in the theater act as the cinematographer to make it all moody and mysterious. My aunt lived in Florida in the ‘40s, and I remember her description of the shutters, so I used ‘Bermuda’ style rigid slat shutters, not the solid wood of the movie version. Besides, I had to give Peter K the opportunity for shutter templates!”


Beatty worked with Calgary, Alberta-based F&D Scene Changes to ensure the scenic materials were actor-friendly, inexpensive, and perhaps most importantly, waterproof. “I loved using twin wall polycarbonate in different directions. This [set] was built so fast that I went to Home Depot and Lowes’ catalogs, little realizing that their Canadian counterparts had slightly different products. SmartSide cement board is waterproof and mold proof and has an actor-friendly, pre-made wood texture. I used it everywhere in every way I could. No time for a combed wood texture at the speed F&D scene changes had to build it. Rain effect building meant that no two pieces were next to each other at the same time, making the wood texture consistent.”

Photo by Jeff Lorch

To generate a hurricane on stage, small gestures just would not suffice. “Bless everyone at the Geffen,” praises Beatty. “Nobody wanted to back off from it. In fact, the technical staff came up with the air jets and extra water effects. The nerviness of the Act One window unit blowing onstage was most exciting. There were a few ‘shelf dumps’ of props that were surprisingly ‘dumb’ tech, but so fun to watch. A brave crew was pulling ropes for hours to make palm trees dance, and sometimes in rain gear as they braved a wall of water.” Of course, there was the day of the big leak, but the show went on thanks to the diligent crew.


“Who knew that after I got a period Key Largo fishing map together, that Rich Gilles, the prop chief, could figure out how to get the right fish for the wall made in fiberglass, so any Florida fisherman would be impressed?” Beatty concludes. “Opening up that crate was like Christmas in hurricane season.”

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