Equus at the Incline: Fury, Rage, Worship, and Love Are Closely Intertwined
Posted On July 7, 2017
Review by Ken Stern of Equus: Incline Theatre
Is the primary human story that of parents and children? And is love—and trust—life’s primary motive? So when your dad is a socialist, and an atheist, and your mom is a devout Christian, and each suppresses criticism and conflict while voicing their beliefs, of course their only son is confused, and also leading a lonely life.
More then confused, actually, in Peter Schafer’s Equus, playing through April 23rd at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. Before the curtain rises teenager Alan Strange (Christopher Carter) blinded six horses at the English stable be works at on weekends. Alan loves horses, had a horse poster on his bedroom wall for years, so why? What is the root cause of his horrific act?
Alan has been brought to a psychiatric hospital and Dr. Martin Dysart (Michael Hall, who is, like Carter, on stage for almost the entire play) by court magistrate Hester (Leslie Rae Slaugh). Will the psychiatrist get through to the initially silent and intransigent teen?
This is a heady, serious, and intense subject, not the least because sex, and full nudity, is also an issue. It is hard being a teenager, even in a functional loving family. Alan’s parents (Martha Slater as the mother as committed to her fury as her son and Rory Sheridan as the inflexible father) quietly and consistently don’t get along, and are rigid and unrelenting in their radically different world views. They impose on, rather than nurture their child. The result, here, is that Alan has snapped, rather then being bent to either’s will.
Much of Alan’s history is acted out as flashback, Alan on stage acting out what he has revealed to the doctor during their sessions. We see Alan’s first, excited, enthusiastic, encounter with a horse at age six, while on a holiday at the beach. His ride on the horse (wonderfully scripted, the rider becoming the horse as Alan climbs on his shoulders) ends with the dad pulling Alan down to the ground with an angry and class-based reaction: “Upper class riff-raff. . . .trampl[ing] on ordinary people!” But it is Alan who is traumatized.
Dysert narrates his own backstory, when he is not sharing incidents from his own loveless marriage with Hester (Slaugh’s character is written in two dimensions, though she gamely acts on, a catalyst for Dysert’s ruminations). A scorecard is needed to track characters’ disappointments in relationships and the obsessive interests they seek to substitute. Dysert is a bit of a ring-master and one man Greek Chorus. Director Greg Procaccino moves him around the set, peering into Alan’s hospital room, observing Alan and Jill in the movie theatre (a well done scene, Jill putting her hand on Alan’s knee), and watching Alan and Jill making love in the stable.
Jill (Hannah Gregory, in a perky performance), has the most joyful role. A teenager also employed at the stable, she helped Alan get his job there, and entangles herself romantically with him. But Jill is not Alan’s first love. Worship and relationships are at the heart of the play. Alan is mixed up as well as mesmerized by horses, his mother’s messages and Bible passages she fed him as a child, now mangled into a personal cult religion. Christopher Carter’s Alan moves from silent to morose, mostly angry, always lonely, and finally, tentatively, reaching for help from both the doctor and Jill.
Pay close attention to the words, as well as the actions of the play. The Doctor is a bit of a philosopher and religious critic and a troubled soul himself. There are no easy answers or solutions to the pain of life. Listen to him grapple with his options for Alan’s “cure” in the last scene.
The supporting cast has character roles, well supporting the play, even if bordering on caricature. Angela Alexander Nalley at the burly Nurse is definitely in charge of her ward. Jim Stump is terrifically costumed and certainly authentic as the roly-poly Dalton, the stable owner.
Peter Cutler is primarily the horse, Nugget, but transforms from horseman to horse in the scene on the beach with the six year old Alan. His horseness is underplayed, his costuming being something between a wig and a mophead as his horse’s mane, a decision made by the production team, which included Steven Ducker, production stage manager and Carissa Gandenberger, stage manager. The set, wood framing, alternates between rooms at the psychiatric hospital and the horse stable.
Peter Shaffer’s Equus won the 1975 Tony Award for best Play.
The production runs through April 23rd with evening performances and a matinee, only, on Sunday. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com. The Warsaw Federal Incline Theater is at 801 Matson Place Cincinnati Ohio 45204.