Before the internet brought us a daily parade of unimaginable acts, before teens with guns brought deadly violence into schools, Peter Shaffer’s searing play “Equus” took a hard look inside the mind of a disturbed young man.
Although the shocking drama debuted in London 45 years ago and won a best-play Tony Award two years later, “Equus” remains a masterwork and a mainstay of regional theaters. And with the then-teen “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe playing the obsessive boy, the play made it back to London in 2007 and returned to Broadway in 2008.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has just opened a new and masterfully executed production of “Equus” directed by J. Barry Lewis. Starring Peter Simon Hilton as psychiatrist Martin Dysart and Steven Maier as his 17-year-old patient Alan Strang, the play contemplates an unimaginably horrific act — the teen has blinded five horses with a hoof pick — then digs down, layer by layer, into the factors that led him to that torturous cruelty.
Dysart, a man in a passionless marriage who also wonders if he’s going through “professional menopause,” has been asked by his magistrate friend Hesther Salomon (Anne-Marie Cusson) to try to get the boy to open up.
The doctor undertakes that process at a psychiatric hospital in southern England, at first getting nothing but defiantly sung TV ad jingles in response to his questions. Then slowly, though games and hypnosis and reenactments and conversations with those who know the patient, the mystery-shrouded portrait of a troubled teen comes into sharp focus.
Shaffer probes the roles of Alan’s parents: Father Frank (John Leonard Thompson), an atheist and stern disciplinarian who refused to allow television in the house, and mother Dora (Julie Rowe), a teacher and deeply religious woman, have clashed repeatedly over their son.
Sparked by a childhood story read again and again, influenced by his mother’s fire-and-brimstone beliefs, Alan develops a fascination with horses, one that becomes obsessive as he eventually conflates his own brand of worship and sexual gratification.
The playwright takes us to that place at the end of the first act, as Alan mounts Nugget (Domenic Servidio), the horse he calls Equus and reveres as a god, and goes tearing off for another secret nighttime ride that carries him to a place of spiritual and physical ecstasy. The moment is startling and hard to watch, but as staged by Lewis, it is also stunningly theatrical.
Strikingly impactful, Lewis’ stylized production is staged on a deceptively simple set by designer Anne Mundell, who has created a black upstage wall with the word “Equus” emblazoned on it. The psychiatric facility consists of a series of platforms and benches, with a key turntable center stage. When they’re not in a scene, the actors sit in chairs upstage, partially visible as they observe the action from the wings.
Lighting designer Kirk Bookman takes the characters and audience into and out of memories, and sound designer Steve Shapiro supplies everything from the soft evening chirp of crickets to the enhanced restlessness of horses sending jolts of fear through Alan. Costume designer Franne Lee transforms the five sleek, muscular guys playing the horses from humans into animals with sculptural metal heads and hooves that allow the equine actors to tower over the people in the play.
Hilton and Maier are a formidable pair, the doctor wrestling with doubts as he tries to excise Alan’s obsessive passion, the boy resisting then opening up then breaking down. Hilton’s matter-of-fact British reserve gives way to deeper engagement in the second act, and Maier — who is making his regional theater debut in “Equus” — gives a fearless performance as a delusional misfit who has destroyed his own carefully ordered world.
Cusson’s Hesther is a warm confidante for Dysart, and Thompson and Rowe bring intensity to their roles as the Strangs. Mallory Newbrough is engaging and breezy as Jill Mason, the girl who brings Alan into close contact with horses and offers him an experience that precipitates his horrific actions. Meredith Bartmon is crisply efficient as the nurse who sees to Alan at the hospital, and Steve Carroll is forceful as the stable owner who has come to regret giving Alan access to his beautiful animals.
Austin Carroll, Nicholas Lovalvo, Robert Richards Jr. and Frank Vomero all play stately horses, but the commanding Servidio does double duty, first as the rider who gives a very young Alan his initial experience of riding (that ends badly when Alan’s dad violently swats his son off the horse), then as the majestic Nugget.
Late in the play, “Equus” contains full, nongratuitous nudity involving Alan and Jill, and at a few points, the dialogue is deliberately vulgar.
Not at all dated, “Equus” has stimulated the creative imaginations of several generations of theater artists, including those responsible for the Dramaworks production. And as the world seems to turn out more and more angry young men who cross the line from roiling anger into violence, the insights “Equus” provides into a damaged psyche seem ever more invaluable.
“Equus” runs through June 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $75 (students $15, Pay Your Age tickets for theatergoers 18-40). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.