Sophocles’ 430 B.C. dramatic epic, “Oedipus,” is more often studied in the classroom rather than produced on stage. In fact, Virginia Tech’s classical studies department currently teaches this foundational text in the Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology class.

Director and set designer David R. Gammons, the School of the Performing Arts’ visiting assistant professor of directing, has chosen to take the play from page to stage at the Squires Studio Theatre on Feb. 21-25.

Many are familiar with the ill-fated characters of Oedipus and Jocasta and the prophecy that binds them. In short, Oedipus, king of Thebes, rules a city devastated by plague and corruption. He is warned by an oracle that the assassin of the previous king, Laius, still resides within the city and must be exiled to restore order to Thebes. This omen unleashes a series of disastrous events, revealing buried familial trauma.

While the plot may be widely known, “one of the things about our greatest artistic masterpieces is that they transcend the time and place in which they first were conceived,” said Gammons. “These great works for the stage continue to evolve, re-invent themselves, and accrue renewed meaning over time. Ellen McLaughlin's  2004 adaptation honors the potent imagery and poetry of the original text, but renders it in language that feels fresh, accessible, and current.”

In the world of the play, society is in the midst of a plague, which mirrors the modern COVID-19 pandemic. Gammons was drawn to the parallels of our current world while envisioning the set design.

“It didn't take a whole lot of imagination to picture this world. It bears an eerie resemblance to the pandemic world we have all been living in for the last three years,” he said.

He describes the set as a “world of contrasts,” where “Oedipus and the royal family live in a high-rise apartment, safe behind the protective barrier of glass, in a sterile, hermetically sealed world of clean white that is simultaneously modern and opulent. Outside their windows the world is in crisis — people are dying in the streets and the bodies are stacking up. There is graffiti and street art on the walls of the buildings, wooden pallets have been configured to hold corpses, fires burn in trash barrels, and steam rises from the subway and sewer grates.”

Zed Mohr, an undergraduate student majoring in theatre technology and design, has furthered the juxtaposition of the contrasting worlds through their role of costume designer. “I wanted to emphasize the difference between the clean and empowered royalty versus those that have seen and literally been torn apart by the tragedy of the plague. I wanted an anger to be felt about the inequality and injustice. I wanted to add to the story by showing bleeding strands of sickness to consume Oedipus and his own corruption,” Mohr said.

A sketch of a costume for the play "Oedipus" is on a bulletin board, along with labeled fabric swatches in brown and grey shades.
Zed Mohr’s costume rendering of the character Tiresias includes mixed fabric swatches that play with director David Gammon’s concepts of a “world of contrasts.”

With the help of dramaturg and Assistant Director Virginia Ames Tillar, a theatre performance undergraduate, the cast has been studying Greek history. In order to immerse the cast in the world of the play, Tillar has been providing research about the roles of women in ancient Greece, historic landmarks, and the importance of the Greek chorus in drama.

Gammons said this production’s chorus is “one of the traditional aspects of ancient Greek tragedy. They simultaneously speak for themselves and for ‘the people’ through the expressive modes of unison speech and movement.”

Production stage manager, Rachel Kilgore, an Master of Fine Arts candidate in stage management, said the chorus needs historical, dramaturgical context to drive the action of the play. “‘Oedipus' has a small cast, with only 10 in our production. It’s pretty dense with words, but is by no means slow-going — which means I really have to stay on my toes and take really good notes so that we can replicate what we worked on for six performances.”

In considering why a modern audience would be drawn to seeing this rarely produced work, Gammons said, “We are invited to consider to whom we turn in crisis, and how we locate power, leadership, and protection in both the divine and mortal spheres. The play also asks us to consider how we accept responsibility — both for those in our immediate families and those over whom we may hold power. The play, through its combination of heightened poetry and deeply human behavior, provokes us with profound questions and allows us to reflect deeply upon our own lives and experiences.”

"Oedipus" by Sophocles was adapted by Ellen McLaughlin. Performances are Feb. 21-24 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 25 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in Squires Studio Theatre. Produced by special arrangement with Playscripts Inc.

Tickets and parking
Tickets are $15 general or $12 senior/student and may be purchased through the Moss Arts Center ticket office in person or online. Tickets will be available at the door in the Squires Student Center beginning one hour prior to the performance. For online purchase, find ticket links online.

All university community members and visitors will need to display a parking permit, use the ParkMobile app, pay a fee, or pay using an hourly meter to park on the Blacksburg campus unless otherwise noted by signage. Find additional parking information here.

If you are an individual with a disability and/or desire an accommodation, please contact Susan Sanders prior to the event.

Written by Liz Gray, a graduate student in arts leadership in the School of Performing Arts

Share this story