With its current production of Equus, Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) is providing a whole new level of entertainment that thrills (and even chills) the audience. As a psychological thriller, Equus contains dramatic, thought-provoking issues regarding humanity, religion, and the question of whether a person’s devotion to his beliefs should be tamed to a degree of “normalcy” to appease the multitude demanding a “politically correct” world.
Equus, which premiered in London on July 26, 1973 at the Old Vic Theatre, has been heralded by audiences and critics alike. It premiered in the United States at New York’s Plymouth Theater in 1974, receiving two Tony Awards (including Best Play), and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. This, of course, is just a small taste of the play’s successes.
Playwright Peter Shaffer conceived Equus from few details, no confirmation of facts… very little information at all, really. It all began as a story recounted to Shaffer by a friend on a weekend drive down a country road. They passed a stable, which reminded his companion of a story he had heard while attending a dinner party. The story lasted only a minute, consisting of a young man who had committed an unspeakable act of violence against 26 horses in a small town near Suffolk, England. It shocked the magistrates, according to the telling. It also sparked in Shaffer the need to create Equus.
Equus is the story of 17-year-old Alan Strang, a boy raised by caring parents in a very religious household. His father, Frank, is against the modern age creeping in on his family and rebukes television as mind-altering thing of evil. Starting in Alan’s early childhood, his mother, Dora, would read the Bible to him hour upon hour, teaching him about God and telling him tales of men arriving in the New World on horseback– seen by the Pagans as one divine being composed of man and horse.
Alan grows to develop his own religious connection with horses and comes to worship them as his own true God. This belief and religious fervor lead the boy down a path that ends in an unspeakable, horrific crime, and he is removed from society as a young man with psychological disorders.
Enter the psychologist Dr. Martin Dysart, who is charged with helping Alan regain his good nature and returning him as a functional, healthy member of society. This leads both physician and patient down a darker road, that Equus himself keeps watch over.
Tall in the saddle for LBPH’s production of Equus is director Robert Craig, who has created for us a powerful performance of the play both intimate in the small space of the LBPH Studio Theatre and, at times, appropriately ominous and grandiose. Mr. Craig has received nominations in the past on his talented direction, and this production should be no exception to the continuing kudos.
With a very talented cast of actors taking the reins of the four main characters, Andrew Nowak (as Alan Strang), was both powerful and vulnerable as the boy who gives his all to worship in the only way he knows how. Nowak leaves the audience feeling as they should, exhausted, and also heartbroken over Alan’s plight.
Noah Wagner’s performance as Dr. Martin Dysart left me wanting more even after the curtain had come down. His energy and creativeness in developing the character of Dr. Dysart is something not be missed. Honestly, as the show ended, I checked my program hoping to find Noah Wagner playing Dr. Dysart in Equus II. But alas, this was not the case.
Tom Juarez (as Frank Strang), and Margaret Schugt (as Dora Strang) are wonderful as the helpless parents who don’t want to be blamed for their son’s actions, and find themselves trying to convince the world that it was not their fault. I particularly want to mention Schugt in her role as the Strang matriarch for bringing forth her character with such feeling and verve. She has created an interesting force in this role that stands out onstage.
Not to be missed as well is the performance of Tony Sabin Prince (as Horseman/Nugget). Although silent for the majority of the performance, his towering presence brought to the stage the powerful innocence needed from the most vulnerable character in the show.
Bravo to Robert Craig and the entire cast for making my first viewing of Equus one to be remembered.
Equus is being presented by the Long Beach Playhouse in the Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St. Performances run through Oct. 5 at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets and information, call (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org . (Please be aware that, with any serious production of Equus, there is full frontal nudity in the performance.)