What is it about our current Zeitgeist that brings a play like Equus back into the repertoire? The play had a run on Broadway a few years back, with Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Alan Strang, the disturbed young man who blinds six horses, and it is now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, featuring Spencer T. Hamp as Strang and Daniel Krell as the psychologist Martin Dysart, who is tasked with figuring out why Strang committed that brutal act. And though the plot of the play is structured around Dysart’s quest to understand Strang’s motives, it broadens out thematically to a condemnation of the deadening features of modern capitalism, of the ways consumption and material acquisition eclipse or substitute for spiritual connection – an accusation the flower generation hurled at their parents back in the 1960s and 70s when this play premiered. Are we “there” again, at a moment of reckoning with the ways in which modern life disconnects us from passion?
I’m not sure that we are; I certainly don’t see signs of that particular critique of modern society among the young people I teach on a daily basis (I see lots of other ways in which young people are disenchanted, just not along those lines). So is Equus back because the audience to whose values it might have originally spoken – those young adults in the early seventies who wanted more out of life than a new refrigerator or a packaged trip to Italy – are now regional theater subscribers closing in on retirement age, ready to revisit the idealism of their youth?
Certainly the Public Theater’s version of Equus places its focus on the character its audience may be most likely to identify with in the play. In this production, directed by Ted Pappas, the main conflict in the play rests in Dysart’s anguish about his disconnect from his passions, and in his jealousy over what he sees as Alan’s experience of communion with the divine. Dysart’s rueful assessment of his own impoverished existence in comparison – “I shrank my own life” – plucks a seductive chord: don’t we all wish to believe that there should be more to life than going through the motions of our daily routine? Is there something to be envied in those whose madness frees them to dive deep into worship and ecstasy? It can almost make you forget that Alan, in a frenzy of psychotic violence, stabbed out the eyes of six beautiful horses with a hoof pick.
I have my issues with the way this play figures mental illness – while part of me wants to agree that pressures to conform to social and psychological norms are culturally and spiritually deadening, I can’t get on board with the play’s romanticizing of the mentally ill as more spiritually alive, or with Dysart’s belief at the end of the play that his “cure” for Alan will be a diminishment. The idea that madness brings you close to the divine feels like the most dated thing in this play. But it may very well be the right time to bring back its critique of consumerism and materialism: now that who we are is so much more inextricably tied into what we consume – as purchasers, as readers, and as social media “users” – the question of what it means to be truly alive – and how an individual might capture those moments of ecstatic presence and liveness – may well start to feel urgent again.
This is all to say that although Equus may seem something of a chestnut, it remains engaging. Shaffer’s script gets a lot of credit for that – the story is exquisitely crafted. And Pappas’s stark production tells that story in a clean, simple, and compelling manner. Krell makes Dysart’s spiritual anguish real, conjuring regret and self-recrimination in a manner that makes you believe he really might trade his sanity for a moment of the kind of passion he thinks Alan has lived. Hamp convinces as the teenager, simultaneously feisty, combative, and aggressive, and also insecure and totally cowed. Also strong in the ensemble are Lisa Velten Smith as the lawyer Hesther Salomon and Nancy McNulty and Timothy Carter as Alan’s mother and father. And then there are the horses – Ben Blazer, Michael Greer, Lawrence Karl, Ryan Patrick Kearney, Benjamin James Michael, and Luke Steinhauer – whose movement choreography in the climactic scene of violence not only brings the horror of Alan’s crime to life, but also reminds us what’s at stake when we mistake madness for divine inspiration.