Psychiatrist Martin Dysart is at a moment of philosophical crisis when he starts to treat Alan Strang, a 17-year-old boy who has a pathological, quasi-religious obsession with horses. It’s a pretty straightforward set-up for a play, but the searing intensity of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 drama has ensured its place as an enduring classic of contemporary theater. This warhorse has been dusted off and hauled out for a very fine production at Actor’s Express through April 21, with veteran actor Chris Kayser in the role of Dysart and newcomer Kyle Brumley as Alan.
One often thinks of “Equus” as a two-man show, and at its heart it is. The situation of a conflicted psychiatrist trying to help a troubled but wickedly incisive young man is a surprisingly powerful and charged one, so much so that it has been used successfully in a number of subsequent dramas, such as “Ordinary People” and “Good Will Hunting.” It’s in Dysart’s monologues, and the scenes between him and Alan, that the crux of the drama forms.
The fast pace of the first act works to sweep us up into the narrative (there’s the quality of a good mystery in Dysart’s piecing together of Alan’s pathology). But the interactions between Kayser and Brumley can occasionally feel too fleet and scripted, when what’s wanted is a sense of nuance and transparency, where we can slow down to see the shifting subtleties of their sparring. When Kayser speaks directly to the audience — perhaps it’s the challenge of speaking to an audience in the round — we often don’t have the sense of intimate confessional, of a character laying his mind bare for the audience, of someone who might say anything, and in “Equus” that is crucial to establishing a convincing existential crisis. Things feel too streamlined: some element of lingering and contemplation is needed to make the intensity a truly white-hot, searing one.
But things seem just right in the second act as the focus narrows, and the two actors’ insight into their characters’ psychology becomes clear. It’s also surprising how sympathetic and interesting Sarah Elizabeth Walls manages to make the character of Jill, usually an almost anonymous “girl who is attracted to Alan.” But there’s a nice intelligence and presence to her interactions with Brumley, nudging him into paying her some attention, by turns amused, intrigued and ultimately frightened by his odd behavior.
Set and costume designers Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay continue to amaze with their inventive but perfectly fitting designs for Atlanta plays. They imagine Dysart’s office — which also serves as the Strang household, the stables and a few other locations — as a sort of symmetrical Rorschach test, an open arena around which the audience sits, symmetrically, to contemplate and reflect and find what it may. A scrim at the back is inventively used throughout, with the actors-as-horses (one of the strangely disturbing elements of “Equus”) often appearing behind it.
There are elements of Shaffer’s play that can seem a bit silly and dated. Its mental illness is conveniently of the aesthetic and stagey kind. But the play’s central questions, and anxiety even, about the dubious nature of “normality” and “health,” the sacrifice of Dionysian urges to more prosaic Apollonian logic, are eternal. At the end, when Dysart describes the bit in his mouth, it’s both a poetic flight of fancy and a recognizable, plain-spoken universal truth.
Actor’s Express has mounted a great production of a contemporary classic, easily one of the season’s best bets.