photo by John Lamb

Play: “Equus”

Group: HotCity Theatre

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building

Dates: September 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25

Tickets: From $15-$25; contact 314-289-4060 or http://www.hotcitytheatre.org

Story: Dr. Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist at a psychiatric hospital in London who treats all manner of cases. He is particularly challenged, however, when his magistrate friend Hesther Salomon implores him to treat a 17-year-old youth named Alan Strang, who has been convicted of blinding six horses. Dysart reluctantly agrees, and begins painstaking therapy with the troubled boy, trying to discern his motives behind such a heinous act.

He learns that Alan is the only child of a devoutly Christian mother and former schoolteacher and an atheist father who is a printer by trade. The quiet and introspective Alan is victimized by ongoing verbal battles between his parents over religion, which culminate when his father destroys a particularly graphic poster of Christ’s crucifixion that adorns Alan’s bedroom wall. The boy replaces that poster with another of a horse with large, staring eyes. When Alan is given an opportunity to work in a stable he quickly accepts, but declines any offer to ride the horses, preferring to groom and tend them instead. Eventually, though, he is placed in a position that forces him to confront his own disturbed fantasies, and his fixation on religious ritual reaches a bizarre and tragic climax.

Highlights: Written in 1973 by Peter Shaffer (“Amadeus,” “The Royal Hunt of the Sun”), the Tony Award-winning Best Play of 1975 was inspired by a newspaper account Shaffer read about a London youth who had blinded several horses. From that kernel of information Shaffer crafted this dazzling, psychological drama that probes the psyches not only of the mentally ill Alan but also the unsatisfied psychiatrist who is forced to examine his own life and its value.

Director Doug Finlayson has mounted an outstanding production of Shaffer’s mesmerizing story in this HotCity Theatre presentation. Everything works in Finlayson’s interpretation, making “Equus” a sizzling sensation and a riveting, thought-provoking examination of individual needs and desires within the confined structure of a societal framework.

Other Info: Finlayson’s pacing is as sure and calibrated as the steady trot of a trusty steed. The two-act drama is accentuated by some sensational performances as well as a remarkable set designed by managing director John Armstrong that masterfully utilizes pieces of stripped wood and sculpted wire to exemplify a series of crosses and horses’ heads behind a barren platform that serves both as Dysart’s office and a stark stable. Robin Weatherall’s sinister sound design arrestingly supports the unsettling action onstage, while Michael Sullivan’s lighting bolsters the oppressive and forlorn proceedings with dark and somber effect. Lisa Fahey’s properties add to the bizarre and depressing impact, particularly the arresting “horse shoes,” as do Felia Davenport’s suitably drab clothing.

James Anthony delivers a wonderfully powerful performance as Dysart. His thoughtful interpretation focuses as much on the psychiatrist’s own inherent unhappiness and frustration as with his patient’s aberrant behavior. As Alan, Drew Pannebecker is thoroughly convincing, whether in his repressed rage or in his distressed modes of stunted communication, and all of it is remarkably crafted.

There’s also outstanding work by Steve Isom and Ruth Heyman as Alan’s parents. Isom superbly conveys the angst and frustration of Frank Strang, a frustrated, middle-class working man who harbors a grudge against the affluent and who also understands that his son isn’t the ‘normal’ lad he’d like him to be. He balances Frank’s stern attitudes and strong disagreements with his wife with a loving devotion to family. Isom additionally does a solid turn as Alan’s observant stable boss, Mr. Dalton.

Heyman is totally convincing as Alan’s devoted and emotionally wounded mother, who aches for her son despite his troubles and who delivers a telling rebuttal to Dysart when he suggests that Alan’s torment might be the result of his upbringing. Emily Fisher is fine as Dysart’s nurse and is very good as Jill, the girl who is attracted to Alan and who causes his perverse sexual desires to erupt. Kelley Ryan nicely plays the concerned magistrate and professional friend of Dysart, while Brian Jones and Michael Perkins shine as a fun-loving horseman and a taciturn trooper, respectively, as well as offering exemplary and startling turns as a pair of mute equines.

The intense subject matter and a nude scene mark the presentation for adult audiences, but the payoff for this intellectual ‘horse race’ is substantial and highly rewarding.

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.