Theater Review: ‘Equus’ Embraces Twisted Normalcy

Psychological drama engages by redefining personal religion

Gloria B. Ho

Equus is a psychological drama focusing on a single, horrific crime: a 17-year-old boy, Alan Strang, blinds six horses with a metal spike. His psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, must find out why and cure him. It gradually comes out that Alan (Jack E. Fishburn ’08) has combined the influences of his parents, his hatred of a deadening consumer society, and his love of horses into a unique and personal religion in which he finds the passion that Dysart (Dan A. Cozzens ’03) lacks.

For all its passion, Equus is a talky play, with long speeches about Greek gods and the deadening effects of civilization that in the wrong hands could sound like overwrought, long-winded clichés. Cozzens makes the most of these moments, endowing Dysart with a slightly hostile glare and energetic hands, imbuing his rambling with all the energy of a repressed fancier of a dead society, with a frigid wife and a job whose benefit he begins to doubt. As Alan, Fishburn is a worthy foil, with a mournful stare and an affect that switches like a light between cold disengagement and eager emotion. In their scenes together, Dysart’s fight to overpower Alan’s hostility to his questioning with a somewhat dubious methodology of hypnosis, “truth drugs,” and leading questions becomes a sort of vicarious entry for him into Alan’s world.

Alan’s father Frank (Robert A. O’Donnell ’05) is an atheistic printer who forbids his son to watch TV; his mother Dora (Jen H. Rugani ’07) is an indulgent and deeply religious former schoolteacher. The actors and director avoid the temptation of giving Alan too tempestuous of a home life; despite their fights, Frank and Dora are a charismatic couple who love both each other and their son. When Frank begins to laugh at himself after overreacting to a man who has given Alan a disapproved-of horseback ride at the beach, we can see the danger in pathologizing Alan’s behavior as a reaction to his parents—or even, as the play suggests, as any more pathological than that of a normal, imperfect person.

Equus’s staging (by Ben J. Toff ’05) and lighting (by Josh Randall) are complex and perfect. A bright light facing the front of the stage serves as both religious illumination and a movie screen. When they are not on stage, the actors other than Cozzens and Fishburn sit in stalls, each illuminated by a bare light bulb and containing a gleaming wire and clear plastic mask of a horse’s head (created with obvious care by Andrea E. Flores ’05, Shaun Rolly, and Nancy Lewis). As the action calls for it, they strap on the masks and walk onto the stage as horses, with a high-stepping horse-like gait.

The combined effect is deeply involving, allowing the audience to feel the power of Alan’s religion, despite its absurdity and to empathize with Dysart’s helplessness and envy. While the play’s moral—is normalcy really preferable to a fully lived life?—may be too pat, its presentation of the characters’ lives and explorations is honest and unsparing, providing tiny details—Alan’s mother thinks a portrait of Christ going to Calvary is a bit too gory but doesn’t want to stop her son from hanging it up; the lawyer who wishes Dysart would shut up about “sacrifices to the God of Normal” has feelings of inadequacy on the job—that allow us to take them seriously and not just as mouthpieces for a viewpoint on the action.

—Reviewer Alexandra D. Hoffer can be reached at hoffer@fas.harvard.edu.