Peter Shaffer’s ground-breaking 1975 drama, “Equus”, burst onto the world’s stages like a bombshell winning the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play. The Broadway production ran for 1209 performances, with American star Marion Seldes appearing in every single performance of the Broadway run, first in the role of Hester Solomon and then as Dora Strang, Alan’s mother.
Numerous other issues inform the narrative. Most important are religious and ritual sacrifice themes, and the manner in which character Alan Strang constructs a personal theology involving horses and the supreme godhead, “Equus”. Alan sees one particular horse – Nugget – in the stable where he works, and confuses his adoration of his “God” in the form of Nugget, with a sexual attraction.
The story still has the power to dazzle and enthrall audiences today. The 2009 Broadway revival garnered three Tony Award nominations: Best Leading Actor – Daniel Radcliffe, Best Sound Design – Gregory Clarke, Best Award Lighting Design – David Hershey.
The 2014 “Equus” production that just closed at Palm Spring’s flagship theatre, The Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT), was a spell-binding production under the intelligent and deft direction of Steve Fisher. Theatres that stage “Equus” still wrestle with the decision of how much of the on-stage nudity their patrons can take without squirming in their seats. In the case of the PCT production, the sensitivity level of mainly patrons with white hair was tastefully handled by director Fisher’s inventive staging and the talent of two dedicated actors, which didn’t detract a wit from the power of the playwright’s overall message.
A great deal of the success for this splendid production lies squarely on the shoulders of a talented ensemble company of actors. Starring in the role of Dr. Martin Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist, is Scott Smith in a tour de force effort. He scores as both the narrator of the play and as a character in it.
Alan is portrayed by young and gifted actor Jake Phillips, who is just mesmerizing as the mentally disturbed and conflicted stable boy who commits the heinous act of blinding five horses. TV and movie star Judith Chapman plays Hester Salomon, the court magistrate who believes psychiatrist Dysart has the skill to help Alan come to terms with his violent acts.
Outstanding support comes from Yo Younger as Dora Strang, Alan’s well-intentioned religious mother, Corbett Brattin as Frank, Alan’s atheist father, Phylicia Mason as Jill Mason, the young girl who has a tryst with Alan who works for stable owner Harry Dalton, played by Bob Harrison. Linda Cook as Dr. Dysart’s nurse, and the actors who portray the five horses: Stephen Blackwell as Nugget; A.J.Higgins; Daniel Martinez; Nicholas Sloan and Jennifer Stowe lend verisimilitude to the movement of the horses.
In the technical department the spare set design by J.W. Layne gives director Fisher plenty of room to stage the nude tryst scene between Mason and Phillips, which is done with taste and with dramatic intensity that is in keeping with the theatricality of the play. Lighting by Layne provides a stage painted with mood enhancing shadows and dramatic shafts of light.
My only “gripe” with the Palm Canyon Theatre is why is it that some of their best work is performed for just three performances? It’s a rhetorical question because I know the answer. It’s just business economics but the public misses out on some excellent productions like the just closed “Equus”. One solution for audiences would be to just purchase a season subscription to the theatre and my “gripe” becomes moot. Contact the Palm Canyon Theatre box office for season subscription information at 760-323-5123.