Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, probes the psyche of both patient and doctor. It’s a gripping drama about a young man who blinds six horses one night and the psychiatrist who must determine the reasons behind the violence. In the capable hands of director Sean A. Brosnahan, this NRACT production offers some of the most riveting performances of the season, and probably the bravest.
Simon Kaplan’s rendering of Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist who both narrates and orchestrates the unfolding of the tortured memories of his troubled patient, establishes a wry graveness along with an inquiring and empathetic tone that permeates every interaction. Initially, he’s reluctant to take on this case given that he is experiencing both a personal and professional crisis: how can he help others if he himself feels imperiled? As Dysart, Kaplan directly addresses the audience (the only character to do so), creating another level of a therapeutic relationship as he confesses his own philosophical doubts while struggling to understand the motivations of his young patient. Kaplan maintains a captivating control of the narrative that truly elevates this production.
When Alan Strang is brought to the psychiatric hospital, he initially communicates with advertising jingles and expletives until Dysart earns his trust. As Strang, Aaron Tyler Boles captures all the emotional hostility and resistance of an uncooperative teen. His lanky frame can barely contain all the repressed intensity of his passions. He delivers a gripping performance that slowly and meticulously builds as he relates his complex idol-worship of horses and then executes his horrific actions.
Hester Salomon, a magistrate and Dysart’s friend, had pleaded for treatment for Strang rather than incarceration. As Hestor, Jean Jamison displays a companionable warmth and rapport, grounding Dysart’s existential musings and nudging his compassionate side. In contrast, Keven Varner and Christine Rogers, as Alan’s parents, Frank and Dora, effectively convey all the palpable distance that separates them in their marriage. Both do an exceptional job of wringing layers from their roles as a domineering, distant father with dark secrets and a loving mother who leans heavily on religious faith.
As Jill Mason, the young woman who works at the stable and attempts to have a romantic relationship with Alan, Bridget Patterson exudes an original freshness, understanding how to combine the right amount of adolescent shyness with naive boldness. Griffin James demonstrates a remarkable dance-like physicality in his depiction of the horse, Nugget, the principal focus of Alan’s obsessions. Miranda Curtis as the nurse, and Keith A. Kennel as Harry Dalton, the stable owner, offer competent supporting roles.
Set design by Thomas Mauney gives the actors plenty of open space for movement and his lighting choices effectively accent the mood and transitions. Costume Designer Lisa Flores-Wolfert has evoked the 1970s era with the use of bell bottom pants, and her striking design of the black, leather horse masks, more suggestive than realistic, underscores the dark tone of the play. Kudos to Rebecca Bossen, Dialect Coach, for the realistic English accents (setting is Southern England) and incorporating some of the dialectal differences that indicate class.
Brosnahan’s commitment to his interpretation of the play, especially his restraint from theatrical excess, works to create a remarkably moving production. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 1975, Equus is not an easy play to stage with its restraints (Yondr pouches for phones because of nudity) and its unsettling, unconventional, deep dive into mental illness. More importantly, NRACT has offered our theater community something very special and memorable.
The North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s production of Equus runs through May 7. For more information visit https://www.nract.org/shows#/equus/.