We come away from a satisfying night at the theater positively nourished in head and heart, but let's not forget the eyes. A finely designed theater set begins the process of disarming us from the notion that what we're seeing isn't real (because it is real, just a different kind of reality). Here's a list of sets that stood out from the pack in 2008 (in no particular order).
Fishtank, Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Dominique Serrand): The cast strove for connection and meaning amid lockers, an airport scanner, and the titular giant, clear chamber, a great visual metaphor for the struggle to escape from a myopic worldview.
Gem of the Ocean, Penumbra Theatre (Matthew J. LeFebvre): Big, substantial, earthy, a near-perfect playground for the outsized personalities and monumental themes of August Wilson's epic (transformed in the second act into a stage for the mythic and supernatural).
Old Wicked Songs, Theatre Latté Da (John Clark Donahue): Tidy, detail-ridden European elegance, the visual equivalent of this strong meditation on the intersection between sounds and words, and how they make the heart sing.
Killer Joe, Theater Pro Rata (Carin Bratlie): Rundown anti-charm to match a story about bad debts and the awful consequences of collecting them.
Five Fingers of Funk, Children's Theatre Company (Brian S. Bembridge): A cozy basement in the 1970s, the subterranean Honeycomb Hideout for five teens pursuing dreams of groove and transport. Funky.
Border Crossing, Off-Leash Area (Paul Herwig): Not so much a traditional stellar set as an agitated, brainy overall design, with a coyote and giant spider evoking tricksters, and time tunnels reflecting the fraught movement of humans across borders (with Jennifer Ilse's searching choreography).
The Gin Game, Jungle Theatre (Bain Boehlke): A timeless back porch at a nursing home, showing subtle signs of wear, pretty much a storage space for the two aged, unloved souls that the show depicted