By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Eric Engle
At the Nora Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts (617) Through April , 1996

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Nora Theatre, expelled from its long-time home at Harvard because the University is undertaking a controversial remodeling of its historic Freshman Union which will turn the theatre's performance space into offices, produced the final show of its 1995-96 season, Peter Shaffer's "Equus", at the Boston Center for the Arts. "Equus" demonstrates just how much is at stake if artistic director Mimi Huntington fails to find a new home for her company. The current production, centered on some impeccable world-class performances, is an object lesson in what a small-scale professional organization like the Nora can do.

Designer Eric Levinson has used a modified version of the sculptural gold wire horse masks and the wooden playing pit of John Napier's original set design, scaled to fit the BCA's intimate playing space. The lighting, by Linda O'Brien, underscores every shift of mood without being obtrusive. Cast members who are not in the on-stage scene remain seated on chairs behind the playing area, closing the circle around the three-quarter stage and establishing by their rapt and reverent attention the atmosphere of ritual awe that this production so powerfully conveys. I saw "Equus" in its 1975 Broadway incarnation, and again when the touring company came to Boston. I thought then that the script and the leading actors were very fine, worthy of all the awards showered on them. The Nora production is even better: more immediate yet more restrained. Eric Engle has guided his cast to an interpretation that holds up under the most intense scrutiny, revealing the universal impulses behind a peculiar set of provincial British behaviors.

"Equus" is a "whydunnit", uncovering bit by bit the imagined circumstances behind a shocking incident in small-town England. A seventeen year old stable boy has gone berserk and blinded six horses -- horses that, according to witnesses, the boy had previously tended with tender affection. The boy --young man-- Alan Strang (Stephan Largay), is suicidal and uncommunicative after his crime, replying to questions only by singing advertising jingles. Dr. Martin Dysart (Will Lyman), a psychiatrist specializing in pediatrics, attempts to gain Alan's trust and uncover Alan's motives, hoping that what he discovers will make it possible for the local magistrate (Mimi Huntington) to consider the young man as suffering from a temporary aberration capable of "adjustment" through therapy, rather than as an irredeemable monster of cruelty fit only for incarceration.

In addition to sessions with Alan, Dysart also interviews Strang's father (David Rothauser), an atheist with a strict Socialist conscience, and his mother (Kathleen Patrick), a devout Christian who reads to her son from the Bible every night. The only child in a household where TV was banished as a source of "mindless violence and mindless jokes", Alan seems to have reconciled the clash between the intense and repressive demands of Socialism and Christianity by inventing a religion of his own. His mother will accept only partial blame: "Alan is Alan, not our things added up. The devil is not made by what Mommy says and what Daddy says: the devil is there", Mrs. Strang declares.

But Equus, the horse-god, has more in common with the Christ of Saint Teresa than with the Satan of Aleister Crowley. Equus is a Suffering Servant. As Alan explains his worship, "..(horses).. give themselves to us, give us all their breath, and we give them stripes for us." Alan's secret ritual of mystic union with his Beloved involves riding bareback and naked through the countryside at midnight, until Equus "bears him away" and Alan and the horse are one. It is the intrusion of "normal" sexuality, in the form of a friendly young woman named Jill (Joan Jute) that sets off the boy's rampage of cruelty. Or is it cruelty? Dysart opines, "What the eye does not see the heart does not grieve".

Dysart agrees with the magistrate that it is necessary to free young Strang from the terror and pain that drove him to violence, but the doctor also has a strange envy of the one-person cult whose guilts and ecstasies have filled the boy's secret life with passion and meaning. Dysart is a student of the Greek mystery religions, and he sees in Alan's private version a return of the old pagan gods, whose retreat in the face of a modern worship of the "normal" has left life ineffably diminished. At least, Dysart feels that his own life in the service of science, rationality, moderation and adjustment, has diminished him: "It's not that I'm unworthy to fill the job," he says. "The job's unworthy to fill me."

"Equus" is being revived rather frequently by theatres around the country this year, having at twentysomething reached the age where a play begins to show whether it will speak to generations beyond the one for whom it was written. Happily, the script seems to be improved by the distance that therapeutic fashion has traveled since its premiere. Shaffer has created in Dysart a man who is a student of language as well as of emotion, and the words in "Equus" are pure and beautiful, with only the rare bit of jargon thrown in. In addition, the recent flood of gay plays has expanded our sexual vocabulary beyond the blinding simplicities of normal-repressed-perverse, supplying a whole range of structuring metaphors where once there might have been assumed to be a single unitary subtext. This expansion makes it possible for Raphael Peacock to create an unforgettably magical performance. As The Horseman. in aristocratic tweeds who frightens the toddler Alan and then with generous condescension takes the little fellow up for a ride, and again as Nugget, manipulating his gold horse mask through an interspecies courtship dance, Peacock conveys the numinous, sexually charged suprahuman personality of Equus, part beast and part god.

Director Eric Engle, who has made theatrical magic for Nora before, has cast and paced Shaffer's play for maximum impact. While it is theatrical in the best sense, always maintaining the sense of enactment, nothing is exaggerated, nothing rings false. It is typical of the ethical tact of this intimate production that when, near the end, one is presented with the spectacle of two beautiful young people fully naked and less than forty feet away, Lyman's performance as Dysart is so compelling that one's eyes are drawn away from their vulnerable bodies to focus on the psychiatrist's 's face. The Nora company successfully evokes and maps the course of a whole range of dangerous feelings -- adolescent rebellion, lust, voyeurism, resentiment, sadomasochism, bestiality, religious awe -- without ever falling into prurience or sentimentality. It's an outstanding achievement.