A year after directing Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” to much acclaim at Guild Hall, Tony Walton is at it again with another of Mr. Shaffer’s plays — this time a staged reading of “The Gift of the Gorgon,” which will be performed at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater tomorrow at 8 p.m. starring Alec Baldwin, Jerry Adler, Melissa Errico, Sam Underwood, and Richard Easton.
“This is a play that I saw over 20 years ago in London with Judi Dench in it, and it tangled my brain for quite a few days,” said Mr. Walton. In “The Gift of the Gorgon,” a son wants to write a biography about the father who never acknowledged him, an English playwright who has recently died, and grapples with the discovery of his father’s true character as his widow reveals their life story.
While drawing upon the theater of the ancient Greeks, the play also reflects a contemporary theme in American culture. “The reason it wasn’t picked up and done in the U.S. right away was because the engine underlining it was centrally about what do you do when dealing with terrorism,” Mr. Walton said. “If someone killed your kid, do you respond in the ancient Greek manner? Have we changed at all? Is there is any root in a kind of merciful thinking?”
“When the play was written, 9/11 hadn’t happened, there wasn’t a personal involvement,” he added. Over the past decade, terrorism has presented itself to the American public, and the question of what someone would do if a terrorist killed his or her child is unfortunately not as abstract as it may once have been here. “I wanted to land on one side or another, and I was endlessly landing on the merciful side, and then I’d think, what if it was my daughter?” said Mr. Walton.
Rather than a full-scale production, Mr. Walton has chosen to do a reading of the play, which is the fundamental element of theater. “It’s very much about playwriting, how different it is for audiences today than Shakespeare’s time. When now, everything is somewhat illustrated for us. In Shakespeare’s day, all came from the words. You were obligated to participate with your imagination,” he said.
“When I saw Peter’s play, I had been forewarned, but watching ‘Gorgon,’ how heavily and intellectually illustrated all of the passages were, which were recreations of plays set in ancient times by this playwright, I kept thinking, it’s there, we just heard that. What a shame we’re sort of having to be played down to, shown it as we’re hearing it. I wanted to see how it would work if you left out all of the illustrated passages, the goddess Athena coming in her chariot and Medusa,” he said.
Rather than have the actors sit in a row, Mr. Walton said there will be some staging and variation in the actors’ movements. However, “when I get my actors together, there may be some kind of rebellion,” he said. The former set and costume designer who has an Oscar and Emmy under his belt also admitted that tomorrow’s production has a very complicated lighting scene for a reading. A desk representing the playwright’s workplace will be on the stage as well, even though the play begins after his death.
“I’d like to have a white towering Greek cliff in the background. I’m going to see if we can bring it more to life than what is done at a conventional reading,” he added.
Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Underwood both appeared in last year’s “Equus.”
Mr. Walton is excited to work with Mr. Baldwin again, “Alec is the real thing. He received a standing ovation for ‘Equus’ on his first preview. He could’ve just thrown it in. Right up until his final performance he asked, ‘How was that?’ I told him that I think that’s as good as it gets. We all had that feeling. He still wanted to know, though. ‘You don’t have any notes, do you?’ ” With a laugh, Mr. Walton told him, of course. “Alec wanted it for the final performance, ‘I want to do one right,’ ” he said.
“There’s a lot of Peter in the role, there is a vengeful aspect, the energy that comes with meaning to deal with vengeance. There’s a great kind of power to it that Alec can bring and relate to,” he said.
“Melissa is ideally suited for the part of his wife. Much of her life echoes that of the wife of the play,” said Mr. Walton. She even attended college where the two principals meet.
Mr. Walton is at work on another project that spans his 50-year career of design on Broadway. He and his wife, Gen LeRoy Walton, are sifting through 10 rooms of his stored set models and costume sketches for a Library of Congress collection. They also need to generate donors to help fund this endeavor.
According to Mr. Walton, set models tend to revert to their “natural” state after a production, which is “cornflakes.” In lieu of this, he has embarked on the arduous task of organizing and photographing 17,000 items so far. “It’s an awful lot of work. We gave ourselves a false deadline so this wouldn’t consume the rest of our lives,” he said. By the way, that deadline was the middle of last week. “It keeps the mind alive,” he added, “It’s terrifying how much exists.”
After a severe bout with cancer last year, Mr. Walton has made a full recovery and is, he said, “feeling dangerously feisty.”