Peter Shaffer’s 1973 stylized drama Equus takes the form of a detective story, as child psychiatrist Martin Dysart tries to learn what caused 17-year-old Alan Strang to brutally blind a group of horses. With heightened theatricality, it becomes not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. And in the course of trying to understand the boy’s motives, Dr. Dysart wrestles with his own demons.
“Through the discovery of the why is a great deal of discussion which is universal to all of us,” says director J. Barry Lewis. “Our passions, our beliefs, our understandings of life in general.”
The play was a major success with audiences and critics in London and New York in the early 1970s, followed by a film version that starred Richard Burton in 1977. Although infrequently revived, Palm Beach Dramaworks is mounting a production that concludes its season, beginning this Friday.
Understandably, Lewis feels that the script has not lost its impact in the past nearly half-century. “I think there are universal truths in the play. Universal questions, I should say, that remain as relevant as they did 45 years ago,” says the director. “It’s the human condition that Dysart is struggling with. And I think the story is as horrifying – mutilation of animals – it has the same kind of power today, because the language is extremely powerful in the search for meaning.”
Peter Simon Hilton, last seen at Dramaworks in Arcadia, will be playing Dr. Dysart, a character to which he feels a kinship. “I feel very partnered with Dysart’s knowledge of the classical world.” he says. “I studied Latin and Greek at college, so when I read and subsequently speak his words, his monologues, that center around his passion for the classical world and civilization, that is something I can tap into instantly and find incredibly enjoyable to play.”
He responded to the script for what it is and what it is not. “When you read it and see that everything is very seamless, it actually plays into all the things I love about live theater,” notes Hilton. “Not having huge cumbersome sets, people talking to the audience, viscerally involving them in the story with just a bare stage and people opening themselves up in a very raw and committed way. That’s what Shaffer has written, because the subject matter is so epic.”
Although he never saw the 2008 Broadway revival of Equus, that is what put the play on the radar of actor Steven Maier, who will be making his Dramaworks debut as Alan Strang.
“I had heard about it in high school, because Daniel Radcliffe was doing it on Broadway, but I had never seen it,” he says. “But I read it and it went on my bucket list immediately. In terms of Alan, there aren’t many roles like that for young actors that are just so challenging and require so much of the actor. When I read it, I said, ‘I have to do this.’ ”
“The opportunity to do ‘Equus’ doesn’t come around a lot,” says Hilton. “In commercial theater, I don’t think many companies take the risk of doing a play such as this. It’s the size of the cast, the subject matter. People can be so conservative and so reticent to put on a play that is so ‘naked’ as this is.”
Hilton’s word choice is no exaggeration. For the first time in its history, Palm Beach Dramaworks is alerting prospective theatergoers that its production contains nudity, a reference to a climactic unclothed sequence in which Alan and a stable girl give in to their previously repressed passions.
The nudity is integral to the play’s themes, Maier feels. “At that specific moment, Alan is at his most emotionally vulnerable and emotionally naked. It just makes complete sense that he would be physically naked as well. Throughout the whole play, he’s so guarded and little by little he breaks open. This represents his ultimate release.
“Ultimately, Alan is unashamedly passionate. He lets himself love something and worship something, regardless of the consequences. He’s not ashamed to let himself feel such intense emotion for something. Which Dysart cannot do,” says the actor. “I feel like I can relate to Alan. As an actor, you have to be unashamed to feel fully and be present.”
As it has so many times before, Dramaworks is embracing a complex play that other area theater companies might shy away from. “People bandy around the word ‘unique’ all the time, but I think this opportunity is quite unique, because the play just does not get done,” says Hilton. “To experience something as openly theatrical and enjoyable and all-encompassing from an emotional perspective, which is both fascinating and horrific at the same time, is not something you’re going to be able to get every day of your life. If you don’t take this opportunity, you have missed out.”
EQUUS, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, May 18–Sunday, June 3. $75. 561-514-4042 or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.