By Rick Reed
After spending so much of my free time in theaters over the past five years, I treasure the words, “90 minutes, no intermission.” I treasure them not only because it means I will have a bit of personal time left in my evening, but also because when a production goes over the two-hour mark, it’s often because its ponderous and self-indulgent, the result of a playwright or director too in love with his or her work to think of cutting anything.
Thankfully, The Hypocrites’ powerful and compelling production of Peter Shaffer’s Tony-award winning play, clocking in at around 2-1/2 hours, is not a minute too long. This is a play and a production (with spirited direction from the inspired mind of one of Chicago’s most exciting young directors, Sean Graney) that does superbly what all good theater should do: grabs you in its clutches and refuses to let go. You forget about time. It achieves this feat by giving you a deeply engaging story, characters you can care about (even ones that have done reprehensible things), and a lot to think about after you leave the theater.
By now, Shaffer’s psychological tale of a boy who has inexplicably blinded a stable full of horses and the psychiatrist who unearths the disturbing rationale behind this atrocity is fairly well known, in part because of a 1977 film version starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth, and because of its sensational subject matter. Because this is a sensational story and because, on close reflection, it does have its flaws (the therapy scenes which comprise a big portion of the play are formulaic in their rhythm of build up, revelation, and catharsis that all come a bit too easily), it’s important that its production be put in the care of highly creative people. Happily, the Hypocrites have more than earned that mantle, and they continue to do so with Equus. One is so engaged in the story and the fine performances (mainly from Geoff Button as Alan, the boy at the center of the story, Halena Kays a young girl who ignites Alan’s passions in more ways than one, and Karin McKie as Alan’s beleaguered mother, Dora), that let us see into the hearts and souls of these flawed, but very human characters. J.B. Waterman is the “lead horse”, Nugget, in the show’s sextet of horses and its to Graney and his actors’ credit that these human horses are never self conscious or hokey (which they could be in lesser hands), but sexually charged representations of equine grace and power. We understand, from the chorus’s fine work, Alan’s confused sexual attraction and his quasi-religious worship of the animals. In the role of psychiatrist Martin Dysart, Kurt Ehrmann does solid work, although he could turn down the intensity in spots (only in spots), so that he would have a fuller connection with the other actors on stage (he sometimes employed a faraway, thoughtful look when he should have been reacting to whoever was on stage with him). Minor quibble, though. Ehrmann makes logical choices to making an emotionally charged part real and understandable. It is the psychiatrist’s questioning of the good he actually does with a case like Alan’s and how the case reflects his own life that form the basis of the play and allows its central metaphor (about the value of normalcy in a world where true artistry and passion are in too short supply) to spring elegantly from the boards.
The Hypocrites really deliver here, giving us a show that resonates with intelligence and sparkles with creativity. It’s one of those “don’t miss” occasions people like me don’t often enough get the chance to champion.