Theater: Actor’s Choice’s ‘Equus’ is riveting and haunting

Written by Peter Shaffer, produced by Actor’s Choice and A. Michael McKinney, and directed by Mike Seely. Continues through Aug. 7 in the Bunbury Theatre, 604 S. Third St. For more information, call 583-8222.

Louisville’s newest theater company, Actor’s Choice, has made a strong statement with their first play, a riveting production of Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning tragedy “Equus.” If they continue to mount contemporary classics that showcase Louisville’s acting talent so effectively, they will quickly make a name for themselves.

“Equus” is the story of young Alan Strang (Drew Cash), who is remanded to the custody of a state-run mental hospital and the care of Martin Dysart, a child psychologist played by Roger Fristoe, after he blinds six horses with a spike. Gentle Alan’s horrific actions shocked his religious mother (Jamie Lentz) and headstrong father (Tom Pettey), as well as his love interest Jill (Jennifer Thompson) and boss (Alan Weller); but compassionate magistrate Hesther Saloman (Claire Sherman) lobbied for the boy to receive treatment rather than face prison.

Over the course of the play, Dysart must discover why Alan committed his crime and figure out a course of treatment. As Dysart explores Alan’s psychosexual and religious attraction to horses, he also serves up his own doubts about the efficacy of his profession. He calls it “professional menopause,” but it’s really a fundamental questioning of identity and purpose.

As Alan (reprising his role from a recent IU Southeast production), Cash is bruised and defiant, a boy deeply in thrall to deep-seated delusions, and as a result, a loaded gun utterly alone in the world. Cash brings a much-needed vulnerability to the role, which serves to temper the audience’s desire for justice with a longing for mercy — Cash’s expressive eyes smolder, alternately flashing between suspicion of Dysart and pleas for the doctor to rescue him from his private hell. By the terrifying climax of the first act, when Alan begins to open up the depths of his pathology, Cash still only hints at the fearless performance he delivers in the second act.

Without a strong and charismatic Dysart to play against, Cash’s Alan might never have gained much traction. Veteran actor Fristoe combines a weary humor with his dogged determination to see Alan’s case through even while harboring strong doubts about the harm his treatment might do. Dysart envies Alan’s passion, however deviantly expressed, and sees the potentially harmful catch-22 of psychiatric treatment: To treat Alan risks robbing him of his vitality and reason to live, but the alternative means leaving him locked in a waking nightmare forever. As he demonstrated a few years ago in a Pandora production of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” Fristoe can carry a monologue, a pivotal skill for this role, as Dysart works out his internal struggles through a mixture of compelling monologue and tense dialogue with his colleague Saloman.

And, oh, those horses, those strange and mythical beasts that command such a dark and lonely part of Alan’s imagination. The costume heads and hooves, rented from a recent East Hampton production and modeled on the original Broadway production’s design, transform six wordless chorus members into monsters, projected straight from Alan’s malformed imagination into glorious, frightful apparitions on stage. With such visuals alongside the outstanding performances, this play will stick with you, as haunting as a terrified boy’s eyes.