The students and faculty of Oakland University’s theatre program have staged a mesmerizing, wonderfully unnerving production of Peter Shaffer’s psychological drama,”Equus.” The original Broadway show captured the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play, and we were curious about what prompted the revival of this once groundbreaking, but now 40-year old play.
We met with O.U. theatre instructor Thomas M. Suda, who directs this production, right before the opening night performance on Thursday, November 12. He explained that he wasn’t sure what he wanted to direct for this season, when the play literally suggested itself. He was working with a student to reorganize his library, “And a book fell off the shelf—and it was ‘Equus.’ And I thought, ‘there’s a sign.’ So I picked it up and I re-read it and I thought, ‘wow, it’s time to do this again.’” With its themes of disillusionment, religious controversy, misplaced passions and mental illness, the play is as relevant as ever.
“Equus” is told from the perspective of jaded but highly-effective clinical psychologist Martin Dysart, played with integrity and intensity by Joshua Steckelberg. Dysart has been asked to help a 17-year-old-boy who deliberately blinded six horses in a late-night rampage. The boy, Alan Strang, refuses to talk about what happened, but is tormented by guilt and nightmares. Strang is played by Ian Turnwald, who has the uncanny ability to summon up, as the story requires, both a chillingly blank stare and a terrifying howl of supplication.
As Dysart speaks to the boy’s parents and employer, and as Strang himself reveals glimpses of the intricate, invented belief system that drives his behavior, the psychiatrist finds his own complacency being challenged. As the shroud obscuring the events of that fateful night slips away, the doctor is forced to make comparisons between the passionate, tormented boy and his own controlled, sterile life. Dysart is much taken with classical Greek literature, art, architecture and mythology—and secretly desires that pagan experience. In Alan Strang, the doctor sees a person who has invented a passionate and fulfilling form of worship—and he questions whether “curing” Strang is the right thing to do.
In this stunning production, everything about the therapy sessions feels authentic. Tom Suda credits Kevin Corcoran, a clinical psychologist and dean of OU’s College of Arts and Sciences, with offering invaluable insight. “There are so many layers. I don’t think you can ever figure out all the layers in this play,” Suda said. “He was very helpful in my research and letting me in on things that would have taken months to research. And he was right there with the answers and working with us one on one.”
The show is emotionally and physically challenging, but this young cast delivers a fine, compassionate ensemble performance. In fact, they act as a Greek chorus, especially the six actors who represent the horses, by always remaining in the performance space and contributing audibly to the center-stage action. In addition to Steckelberg and Turnwald, the cast features: Marissa Pattullo (Nurse), Ayanna Greene (Hesther Salomon), Andrew Barikmo (Frank Strang), Stefanie Sambrano (Dora Strang), Brandon Santana (Horseman/Nugget), Billy Robinson (Harry Dalton), Sarah McEneaney (Jill Mason) and Brian Bieber, Bobby Brooks, Joel Hunter, Katie Person an Lucy Price as the Horses.
The action of the play takes place entirely inside the asylum where Alan Strang is being treated. But the scenic design by student Chris O’Meara, positions the audience inside the barn where Alan Strang’s brutal crime took place and, by implication, puts us inside his head. Lightning flashes between slats in the barnwood behind us, and where the usual riding tack would be hung, we make out the iconic horse-head masks worn by six of the actors. Barn lights are strung over the upper balcony. And in the center of the studio, a wooden platform, with rails and benches to suggest a stable paddock, rests on a turntable that is spun by cast members to create an intimate 360-degree stage.
The stage is beautifully lit by Craig Horning. The ‘70s-era costumes are by Ashley Gaal; Sound Design is by Jason Maracani; and the Stage Manager is Vanessa Quigly.
“Equus” runs through November 22, 2015 in the Varner Studio Theatre, located on the Oakland University campus in Rochester. Ample free parking is available. Performances run Thursday to Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with a matinee on Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $8 for students, and $8 for everyone who attends a special performance at 10 a.m. on Friday, November 20. Tickets can be purchased online here without service fees, by phone at (800) 585-3737 or at the Varner Box Office on OU’s campus. Tickets ordered online or by phone can be picked up at the box office one hour before the performance begins. Complete ticket information is available online. “Equus” contains mature themes, nudity and strong language; it is not recommended for children under 17.