When sound designer Fitz Patton read the script for Ronan Noone's play "Brendan," which the Huntington Theatre Company is presenting in its world premiere in the Wimberly Theatre, he was struck by the way the city of Boston emerged as another character in the drama.
"Initially I thought the play was simply the story of an immigrant finding his way in a new world," Patton says during a rehearsal break. "But it's more than that. It's about a young man who's trying to remain honest and decent in the midst of a hurricane of activity that is Boston. The city becomes both a formidable partner and an opponent."
Noone, a native of Ireland who immigrated to Boston, has set "Brendan" in the city he's made his home. And Patton and set designer Alexander Dodge, both New Yorkers, approached the Boston-centric "Brendan" with care.
"The character lives in a kind of generic, dormitory-ish apartment building that is common in many cities," says Dodge. "But as soon as you capture the squeal of the subway on those tracks on the street, the audience knows exactly where they are."
Dodge says he did not want a naturalistic set for "Brendan." Instead he came up with a highly evocative design. "We needed to create a neutral background where lots of different scenes could play out," he says. "By using the iconographic image of the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square reflected off the Hancock tower, we suggest Boston visually and use sounds to fill in the details."
"Brendan" includes some three dozen scenes, both indoors and out. "If you tried to do a lot of elaborate set changes, you'd stop the dramatic action completely," Dodge explains. "If you can find a car dealership parking lot or the Stop & Shop parking lot that has some distinctly ambient sounds, it does a lot of work for you."
Patton says he turned to the script to find places to collect sounds in Boston. "Some of them are quite literal," he says, "like a courtroom scene in City Hall, or the activity outside Faneuil Hall, including a busker who drums on buckets, as well as some street sounds that are very specific to Kenmore Square." Other moments are more atmospheric: "I wandered around Allston, stepping into several pubs and restaurants until I felt I had sounds that reflected the neighborhood."
Patton says the sounds of different cities are distinct, and neighborhoods like Allston have individual signatures. "There's a movement among sound designers in New York to do a 'sound map' of the city, and it's fascinating to hear the differences between neighborhoods. Allston has a gritty personality and an intensity, maybe because it's filled with people who seem to be stopping there for a while before moving toward something else."
That grittiness plays a part in "Brendan," Patton says. "There is a willingness to allow this character to be so tender, it makes the contrast with his environment quite sharp."
But "Brendan" also paints the picture of a city where someone who is defenseless can survive and thrive, Patton feels. "I think a character like this could have gone off the rails in New York City," he says. "But there's something about Boston in particular that didn't require him to become hard or cruel. Ronan's ability to capture that sensibility in Boston is what makes the play fascinating."