By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
In his 1973 play Equus, Peter Shaffer depicted a detective story, inspired by a true event, about a reluctant psychiatrist attempting to unravel the case of a 17-year old boy who blinded six horses. The play's confrontation of religion with psychiatry helped set the tone for pop culture’s understanding of mind and behavior.
Forty years later, books by Oliver Sacks, shows on NPR, and hit TV shows and movies (Silence of the Lambs, Criminal Minds) have fleshed out the genre and broadened popular knowledge of aberrant psychology. In choosing to stage this otherwise-dated play, Curio Theatre Company needed to find a fresh, or at least relevant, angle for 21st-century audiences.
Find it they did.
Liz Carlson’s nuanced direction emphasizes the inner struggle faced by psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Paul Kuhn), a man torn between professional doubts and the dwindling embers of his genuine desire to help troubled teens. Kuhn’s superb performance reveals a man at midlife, emptied of passion, dealing with a youth (a deft Eric Scotolati as Alan Strang) who has conflated religious imagery and sexual desire into a torturous inner tempest.
Curio’s focus further accentuates the more disturbing moments of Shaffer’s text, with Tim Martin’s lighting creating a nightmarish undercurrent of grief and desire. Kuhn’s interlocking wood-plank set sits us in a stable; here the remainder of the excellent cast dons horse masks to enact Strang’s fantasies.
Like his later play Amadeus (1979), Shaffer resolves the spiritually motivated conflict via envy. The defeated Dysart longs for Strang’s passion, and views any cure as depriving Strang of his sense of worship (Dysart describes that as the worst thing he could do to a person). Forty years ago, this explanation fascinated; today, it indicates a deficit of understanding. What will I do to this boy, Dysart wonders, other than reduce him to a “normal” state?
And that leaves us too to wonder, about what motivates, and what would prevent, the psychological turmoil that led to Aurora, Sandy Hook, Columbine? Even worse, what happens if we wind up like Dysart, and ultimately fail to know?
Through Feb. 16 at Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Tickets: $15-$20. Information: 215-525-1350 or curiotheatre.org