Designer Geoffrey M. Curley likes to begin with a clean slate. The less he knew about the sets for other productions of Willy Holtzman's Hearts: The Forward Observer the better. He wanted to solve the puzzle the play presented on his own. Hearts, which previews this week at Northlight Theatre, stars Mike Nussbaum as a World War II veteran looking back on his life from the vantage point of his basement rec room. Billed as "part memory, part voyage of redemption," it jumps quickly from scene to scene, Curley says, going from basement to high school to battleground. "There's no way we could actually put the scenery up for each of those locations without being distracting," he says. "It could easily become a show about scenery, props, and costumes. We're trying to stay away from that." His solution was to stash all the props and costumes in full view of the audience and style the rec room as a bunker. This is his second Northlight project; he designed the felicitous set for last season's The Gamester as well. Curley, whose regular gig is artistic director for Chicago's Roadworks Productions, also did the sets and costumes for Chicago Opera Theater's Rape of Lucretia, which opens March 13 at the Athenaeum in Chicago. Hearts runs from March 20 through April 28 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. Tickets range from $30 to $34 for preview performances and from $32 to $45 after opening. Previews are Wednesday, March 20, through Saturday, March 23, at 8, and Sunday, March 24, at 2:30 and 7. Call 847-673-6300 for tickets and additional times.