"We aren't really taught how to build things that will last for 80 years," Jamieson says.

"I often get people who want me to remodel their bathrooms or build them new kitchen cabinets. I tell them, 'I can only give you a six-week guarantee.'"

If designers are finicky, it's because sets matter in live theater even more than they do for a movie or television show. The shrubbery, lamps and cutlery arrayed on the stage often are the first things that audience members notice as they take their seats. And because the physical objects themselves are present instead of just their images, a set can go a long way toward creating feeling for the characters even before the actors walk on stage.

Play-goers may admire an inlaid sideboard and imagine how it would look in their own home, or comment that the kitchen curtains are just like the ones their grandmothers used.

An Ettinger set radiates a trademark warmth, even those that take place in inhospitable milieus. An Ettinger set beckons audience members to draw close, to climb on stage and sit on the steps of that wide back porch, or even to spin the wheel on the slave ship.

As Jamieson puts it: "Sometimes when the carpenters come in, they'll take one look at the model they're building and say, 'Oh, this is a Daniel set.' There's a color palette he tends to draw from, certain moldings he'll use, a particular group of classic profiles."

So it's interesting that when Ettinger talks about his inspirations, he doesn't begin by fanning through paint chips or thumbing through books of period furniture.

"Stage design is about where the actors are located on stage, and the obstacles you put in their way," Ettinger says. "The first thing I do is to work out the pattern of movement that the actors have to make to tell the story. That will determine my design."

Ettinger, 56, may have inherited his remarkable eye from his mother, Susi Steinitz Ettinger, a nationally known painter and teacher based in Oregon. It was the set designer's mother who perhaps unwittingly determined her son's preferred color palette: white, burnt umber and ultramarine blue.

"Those are the only three colors that my mother allowed the students in her painting class to use," Ettinger says. "She taught me that out of just those three colors, you can get the most amazing range. She taught me that when it comes to creativity, a limitation can be your friend."

When Ettinger was a toddler, mother and son would select a bedtime story, and later build the puppets and a stage on which to act them out. A few years later, in kindergarten, the boy began constructing cardboard models by himself. At age 11, he created a set for his first live show, a school production of the one-act opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

Given Ettinger's resume, which includes productions in Maryland, Washington and off-Broadway, it's clear that he could find employment elsewhere. He doesn't have to wrestle with the challenges posed by Everyman, a 150-seat theater with head-brushing ceilings, impossible sight lines and pillars dividing the stage.

"Daniel has worked all over the country, in New York and in all the big regional theaters," Lancisi says.

"If he had wanted a career in New York or London, he could easily have had one. Instead, he chose to be a part of this community, to own a home and put down roots. He didn't want to be on the road all the time.

"I hope our patrons and supporters realize what a treasure we have in our own backyard."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Private Lives" runs through Dec. 11 at the Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10-$45. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org for show times.

  • Text NIGHTLIFE to 70701 to sign up for Baltimore Sun nightlife and music text alerts