Trenton playwright William Mastrosimone has returned to his 1985 play “Tamer of Horses” and given it a more immediate resonance and a more complex perspective to this story about an illiterate teenage thug who goes through a transformation.
Trenchant, topical, and timely as it was when I first saw it, the play has been afforded the kind of clever fixes and just enough finessing of the relationships to make it altogether better. It still, however, resists being totally credible even as it remains dramatically compelling.
“Tamer of Horses” has always been an inspiring play, but it is now infused and updated with the sound and fury of intensified urban ghetto lingo. There is also in the thug’s performance, the more descriptively confrontational body language than was in the infancy of its evolution in 1985. Audiences not familiar with the play will think it was written the day before yesterday.
Best known for his award-winning 1982 play “Extremities,” Mastrosimone is also known for an impressive number of additional plays, TV shows, and films that are societal (“A Stone Carver),” historical (“Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor”), political (“The Afghan Women”) and biographical (a five-hour mini-series on “Sinatra”). He may be defined as a gifted dramatic activist and an intensely committed humanist.
Despite the unfortunately static direction of Adam Immerwahr, the cast of three delivers strong performances in a worthy play whose theme harks back to such classics as “The Corn is Green” and “Pygmalion.” The clash between mentor and student has always been good for a discursive drama, and this one has the advantage of some violent physical contact.
Trenton’s Passage Theater is also a perfect venue for a play about a black teenager who has just escaped from a youth detention center in Trenton. Bruised and bleeding from cuts caused by climbing over the barbed wire that surrounds a farm home in rural New Jersey, Hector (Renaldo Piniella) is also exhausted and hungry. He seeks refuge in a barn where he hopes to spend the night in the company of horses. Instead, he is discovered by their owner and teacher of classical literature, Ty Fletcher (Edward O’Blenis).
After a rough and tumble opening encounter (splendid work here and later by fight director Samantha Bellomo) with the belligerent, combative, fast-talking, and shiv-carrying Hector, Ty’s curiosity is aroused. Despite Ty’s fear that he and his wife Georgiane (Lynette R. Freeman), also a teacher, may be in physical danger, he is determined to have the upper hand.
While treating the young man’s wounds, Ty and Georgiane temporarily fall for Hector’s lies. Amid his torrent of vulgar talk and ill-manners, they spot a vulnerability. Despite Hector acting like a caged wild animal, Ty and Georgiane coax their fugitive into staying. However reluctant Hector is to act like a gentleman or to help Ty with the chores for his keep, he soon becomes intrigued by Ty’s willingness to reach out to him. However a robbery in the neighborhood adds more distrust to their relationship.
A connection is reached when Ty tells Hector that his namesake is the hero referred to in Homer’s “The Iliad” as “the tamer of horses.” Ty begins to connect with Hector by reading the epic poem to him. This serves to segue into Ty discovering Hector’s gift for poetry and for an amusing rap-propelled discourse. Ty sees this as an opportunity to prove himself a modern Pygmalion.
O’Blenis is excellent, if also just a little stiff, as the disillusioned teacher who has recently left his school when his classics course was dropped from the curriculum. Hector’s harrowing back story is woven craftily into the plot as are those of Ty and Georgiane, both of whom found their way out of the projects and from poverty to become educators. Our empathy moves gradually to Ty as he undertakes to do for Hector what he seems unable to have done for his rich, spoiled former students.
Freeman’s performance is spot on as the warmly cautious Georgiane, who gets to voice her sentiments and to stand by her man. Mastrosimone’s play becomes genuinely poignant as we begin to realize that neither she nor Ty can be sure that simply teaching Hector to read is going to be of lasting value if and when they have to let him go back on the street. Piniella is terrific making all the cool moves and assuming all the defiant attitudes as Hector, now armed with a few tools to help him to hopefully rise above his circumstances.
If an air of predictability hangs over the dramatics, it never neutralizes the excitement generated by the provocative situation and the vividness of the performances that are sure to grow in intensity as the run continues. Also vividly evoked is the barn setting as designed by Matt Campbell.
Tamer of Horses, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays 3 p.m., through Sunday, June 8. $30 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.